Raising Assertive and Respectful Children
By: Francine Martinez, Ph.D. | October 6, 2017
“Confidence is not ‘They will like me.’ Confidence is ‘I’ll be fine if they don’t.’” -Dr. Michele Borba
In an era of bullying, we search for the origins of such behavior and wonder about its outcomes. At such times, we might try to understand that aggression is not the same as assertiveness and think about how we teach the concepts of assertiveness and respect to our children.
Assertiveness is respectfully advocating for oneself. Assertiveness is not degrading or demeaning another out of hurt or anger. This is where we begin to teach the value and importance of assertiveness.
Talk About Boundaries
The concept of boundaries is central to understanding assertiveness. Boundaries can take several different forms, such as physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, legal boundaries, or the boundaries of school or workplace. Teaching boundaries teaches children about respect for themselves and others.
Begin with examples of specific boundaries such as traffic lights, fences, or locked doors. Discuss the consequences when these boundaries are crossed. Move on to other boundaries that carry consequences for safety, or physical or emotional boundaries that are reflected in how we are treated. Assertiveness practice comes in articulating when a boundary has been crossed. For example at a family gathering, “I don’t feel comfortable sitting there” can be met with respect and encouragement to find an acceptable solution. Understanding the underlying discomfort may need to come at a different time in the safety of home.
Explain Why Assertiveness is Important
As adults, we can mistake assertiveness for rudeness. Recognize that the first lesson in our children’s assertiveness is to practice speaking up for themselves. The second is how to speak up respectfully.
Assertiveness establishes safety and trust in relationships. If children show fear in speaking up for themselves, they might allow resentment to build in future relationships. As an example, if I give my child the choice of crackers or cheese sticks and he chooses cheese sticks but I give him crackers, teach him to speak up for himself by letting me know this wasn’t what he asked for. This gives me the opportunity to accept my mistake and, if needed, to coach him on how it could have been said more respectfully. If the child learns not to speak up but to “take what you’re given,” then we are instilling a loss of voice that can give rise to responses ranging from simple objections to major ones.
Respect and Praise Your Child’s Assertions
Your children’s attempts at assertiveness are to be accepted and respected. This does not mean they will always get their way. What it does mean is that you acknowledge their feelings and let them know you are listening.
I have a 4-year old granddaughter who is at the stage where “NO” is a powerful word. In a dialogue with her about picking up her toys before we left the house, I was met with the “NO” word. In this situation, I was able to model assertiveness while also acknowledging hers: “I know you are excited about our adventure and want to get going. I am too! The only thing keeping us from our next fun time is your toys scattered in your room. Once you pick those up we’re off!” Viola! She realized I understood her excitement was overriding the task, and she heard the connection between the task and our adventure. She picked up the toys, and we were both rewarded!
Respect Your Child’s Privacy
Everyone’s privacy becomes more and more important as they grow. Without a sense of privacy, children can feel unsafe and violated. Listen and respect your children when they try to assert themselves and protect their space. Respecting your children’s right to privacy not only teaches them that you respect those boundaries, but also leaves your children feeling more comfortable about sharing things with you.
In discussing privacy boundaries with your children, let them know where your boundaries are as a parent. For example, my daughter wanted her first diary as she moved into adolescence. She was clear that this was her “private diary” that she did not want me reading. We discussed this while I acknowledged her right to the privacy of her thoughts and emotions.
I also expressed that I was glad she was using a diary as a means to “talk,” and that I would respect her request with one caveat. My stated boundary was that should I ever become worried about her and she and I stop communicating openly that I reserved the right to read her diary out of my concern for her. We worked with that. Again, she felt heard and respected for her feelings and assertiveness. And, I modeled assertiveness of my potential actions.
Encourage Your Child to Express Feelings
Children need to feel safe and comfortable being themselves in every situation. Their efforts to test their environment begins at a very young age. Those tantrums…yes, they are self-expressions of emotion! Our tendency is to quiet the loud voice and reprimand the behavior we see rather than accept their emotions while curbing behavior. Verbal language development comes during these years with basic words of “happy” and “sad.” Without the wide range of language to express these emotions, we hear sounds and see behaviors that can be annoying and sometimes embarrassing as parents.
I remember my daughter talking to her father about how mad and embarrassed she was when her then 2-year-old child bit another child in daycare. My husband’s response was right on target. He began with “she must have been really, really angry,” then added, “she doesn’t have the words to say how angry she was in a way that another toddler can understand. But toddlers understand biting.”
Enter “the teachable moment.” We teach that being angry because a personal boundary was violated is okay, and that there are other ways to express that without hurting someone else.
Put Your Child in Charge of Decisions
Every day, look for opportunities for your child to make decisions. When there are no parameters for you on what the decision will be, e.g., “You get to decide what we’re doing today after school,” be prepared to accept whatever the decision is while knowing your boundaries. When there are parameters, prepare a few options, “I was thinking we could go to the park for an hour, or drive to the beach and look at tide pools. What would you like to do?”
Naturally, the parameters for decisions change as the child gets older. When freedom is reached in adolescence, we have an opportunity to teach how to manage mistakes and disappointment. When mistakes are made, we also teach our children how to communicate their disappointment and anger in a respectful manner. For example, when the teenager runs out of gas for the first time and blames you for not filling the tank, we want to think about what she is feeling and how to respond to that feeling.
An example response includes “It must have been frustrating to have your plans changed because you ran out of gas. You might consider filling the tank to the quarter-full mark so it doesn’t happen again.” In doing this, we acknowledge feelings and we respectfully reiterate where responsibility resides. Again, we affirm expression of emotions while modeling assertiveness.
Teach Your Child to Follow Through
Perhaps the most important part of teaching children assertiveness is teaching them to follow through with what they say. In being assertive, we want children to consistently emphasize the importance of a boundary they’ve set. For example, your daughter plays softball and someone says that “you throw like a girl” in a disparaging tone. She sets the boundary of how statements like that are not okay, yet sometime later you hear her tolerating that phrase as she is getting coached on throwing the ball. Her ability to state again how she feels when that statement is said reiterates the important boundary she set for herself. This simple boundary follows her through life in relationships, with supervisors, friends, and others who cross her path. Lessons begin early, and this is an important one.
Teaching children assertiveness allows them to be considerate of others while minding their own needs. Assertiveness allows them to speak up for themselves with confidence without fear of what others may think or say. Inherent in these lessons is teaching children that they are not responsible for managing the emotions of others. They are responsible only for managing their own in a manner that communicates confidence, respect, and understanding.