The excitement of mastering a task can be seen in babies as they roll over, grasp a cracker or stack blocks. When they achieve a new feat, watch their faces glow.

These experiences provide a base for a sense of competence and self-regard. When parents encourage a baby to learn a task by himself, they set the stage for a good future self-image.

Without such a balance of autonomy and encouragement, a child can become passive — or dependent on parental praise. He needs to fight for himself to realize his own competence.

How can you build his positive feelings about who he is becoming?

Being warm and loving is the first step. But you also need to embody, teach and reinforce attitudes most likely to serve him as he confronts challenges and solves problems — for example, patience, perseverance and resourcefulness. A baby picks up these qualities as he identifies with his parents.

An infant’s efforts to act on his world contribute to his image of himself as competent.

For example, watch a toddler who is playing with a simple puzzle. It is essential for a parent to learn when to sit back and watch rather than rushing in to help as he tries to fit in the pieces, turning them one way and then another, dropping them in his frustration.

When the baby picks up the pieces to try again, he mouths them, watching the puzzle as if it were an adversary. Finally, he takes the chance. He places a piece on the puzzle board. He turns it, and it fits! He looks around triumphantly.

At this point, your best move is to say softly, “You just did it — yourself!” You will reinforce him as he recognizes his own achievement. From your quiet words, he will also learn to be his own cheerleader whenever he feels discouraged. Had you stepped in earlier — to show him the solution, or even to encourage him to keep trying — you would have cut his triumph in half.

It can be very difficult for a parent to sit back and allow a child to experience frustration and failure before succeeding. But frustration can be a positive force for a child’s learning about himself — as long as it doesn’t overwhelm him in the process.

It’s quite possible to teach a child to read, write or play an instrument at a surprisingly early age. He gathers rewards from everyone around him as he performs. But precocity carries a price. His performance may be motivated by a desire to please others rather than by any inner curiosity of his own. Thus, he may not get the same sense of having achieved for his own reasons.

A certain amount of praise can reinforce a child’s awareness of his own success. But too much praise can become pressure rather than encouragement. And harsh criticism can induce passivity rather than energy to solve problems.

How do you know when to criticize and when to praise? Watch the child. If he’s becoming irritable, he’s probably under too much pressure. If he seems hesitant and fearful of asserting himself, he may need encouragement and less criticism. The goal is a fine balance.

NURTURING INITIATIVE AND SELF-ESTEEM

1. In any new task, encourage the child, but don’t shape it for him or press him.

2. Praise him gently for his persistence when he falters — and when he succeeds. But also help him learn to praise himself.

3. Let him try out several different ways of doing the same thing, and let him fail until he finds one that works. If he gets in a jam or follows a dead-end course, don’t rush to help him. Let him discover his predicament, and praise him when he tries again.

All of this, of course, must be within the bounds of safety and respect for others. But never forget the enormous power of frustration to fuel a small child as he searches for mastery and a sense of his own competence.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: [email protected]