Q Our two sons, 6 and 9, are very different. The younger boy is easy and happy; the older one is much more of a challenge. His confidence level is very low and he worries about everything.

He says he doesn't want to play team sports because he doesn't think he's good enough. Would non-team sports, like hiking and skating, be better for him?

He also says he doesn't like new experiences because he might do something wrong. We've told him that he has to try new things to find out what he likes to do but he just says "no thanks."

He gets along well with his friends and schoolmates, however, and with his brother most of the time. They are very close, although his confidence level did go down when his brother was born.

We thought it was a stage he would get over but he hasn't. Even though we try to treat them equally he is so much harder to get along with. What do we do? And how do we help him be more comfortable in his own skin?

A Some children are simply more cautious--and more self-demanding--than others.

They don't want to walk until they can walk without falling; they don't want to talk until they can speak in sentences. And if they carry this tendency too far, they don't want to swim or play soccer until they think they can do it without swallowing any water or missing the ball--ever.

The more a child expects perfection, however, the less he will try to master new skills, and this inevitably hurts his self-confidence. According to the well-accepted theory of psychiatrist Erik Erikson, children between 6 and 12 are in "the age of industry" when they must learn to be competent enough to know that they can survive, no matter what happens.

This survival instinct drives all children and it has always been far stronger than their interest in school or even in play. Only in the last half-century have most children been allowed to put their play ahead of their chores.

Unfortunately, this heavy emphasis on play, without the balance of work, has not been a boon for children, since it deprives them of some critical lessons. Chores teach a child that he is a giving, responsible member of the family team, and they teach him simple survival skills that build self-confidence perhaps better than anything else.

Your son could get his merit badges in the Scouts, but he should get most of them at home: Ask him to stack the firewood better, shine the hubcaps on the car, polish the copper tray with vinegar and salt. Have him help you change the washer in the faucet and turn the compost heap. When it's warmer, have him prune a tree in the yard because tools make a child feel powerful. To heighten that effect, let him use your power tools to work with wood. An electric sander or a drill are safe enough if a grown-up is nearby.

For a real boost, ask your son to be your helper when you cook supper. He's old enough to boil and peel potatoes, scramble eggs, whip cream with an electric mixer and break the ends off fresh string beans. If he doesn't want to help? Read "Chores Without Wars" (Prima, $12), by Lynn Lott and Riki Intner. Their methods are excellent and the results should be too.

Even the smallest skills will boost your son's self-confidence and the more he accumulates, the easier it will be for him to go out for sports. Just don't push him into a particular sport or onto a team. He may prefer tennis, swimming or golf to soccer and football--depending on his abilities, his interests and his personality--or he may rather go out for band or the chess team. The choice belongs to him.

Questions may be sent to margukelly@aol.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.