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Parents Corner

How To Raise A Child
Who'll Stand Up For Herself

By Mary Garner Ganske

You can't change a child's inherent nature, but you can help kids stick up for their right, with confidence.

I'm proud that my 5-year-old daughter is sweet-she says "please" and "thank you", helps around the house, and acts concerned about other people's feelings. Basically she was born that way, and I tried to encourage her accommodating nature. Until one day, that is, when I noticed a fellow preschooler taking advantage of her generosity-monopolizing the prize Barbie, making off with her glow-in -the dark necklace. Suddenly I realized that teaching her to stand up for herself may be more important than encouraging her to be easygoing.

"Being assertive helps in virtually every relationship-at school, at home, on the playground," says Stuart Fishoff, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, in Los Angles. In the classroom, it puts a child at an advantage because she's comfortable commanding the teacher's attention, raising her hand if she knows the answer, and asking for extra help if she's lost. She'll also have an easier time making friends, since she won't hesitate to say, "Hey, can I play too?"

Of course, there's a vast difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Assertiveness is letting people know your wants and needs; aggressiveness is imposing those wants and needs on others. An aggressive child will try to manhandle a playmate out of her Cozy Coupe; an assertive one, on the other hand, would say, "I'd like a turn when you're done."

Experts believe that assertiveness is, in part, inherited. And we all know from our own experience that some children are simply born comfortable with saying what they want; others are inherently more shy or passive. And you don't want to override natural tendencies by, say, strong-arming a timid youngster into trying out for the lead in a play: "Trying to force a child into a role that's not comfortable for her in order to boost her confidence may have the opposite effect," says Graeme Hanson, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco. It will also make her miserable.

But there are ways to nurture the nugget of assertiveness in any child without pushing too hard, or to help a retiring one see that being just a touch more pushy can be useful. Basically, anything that promotes a healthy sense of self-esteem helps promote assertiveness, says Dr. Hanson. "If a child feels good about who she is and what she has to say - if she's comfortable in her own skin - she'll be more likely to assert herself." To start the engine chugging:

Indulge your infant

"You can't spoil a child under the age of one," says Lynda Tenhundfeld, M.D., medical director of Graydon Manor, in Leesburg, Virginia, a psychiatric treatment center for children and adolescents. So go ahead and cuddle a squawky newborn, giggle when he makes a funny face, feed him on demand (versus adhering to an arbitrary feeding schedule). "This will give him a sense of safety and security - a crucial component of confidence," she says.

Discipline your toddler

As your child's first birthday nears, it's time to start laying down the law. If you don't set limits, she may learn that the best way to get what she wants is to whine or scream. But if you construct a web of strict rules, and dictate a my-way-or-the-highway conformity, your child may only learn that speaking her mind gets her into trouble. Or she may mimic what she sees on the home front and start to bully her peers.

More esteem-affirming ways to discipline:
Criticize the behavior rather than the child.

Say "Stop that! Pinching hurts!" rather than "Stop being a brat!" Belittling your child will make her feel bad about herself and discourage assertiveness.

Be consistent.

If you tell your child she can't jump on the furniture, don't let her do it on Friday nights just because you're tired after a long week. "If the rules are constantly changing, she won't know what's expected of her," says Fischoff. "And that makes it harder for her to be assertive."

Explain your command (briefly)

Saying, "You have to go to bed so you won't be tired for camp" is preferable to "Because I said so." This helps your child distinguish right from wrong, rather than perceive rules as arbitrary.

Teach shy kids how to speak up

At around age 2½ , children start genuinely interacting with each other, rather than simply playing side-by-side. So now's the time to encourage a passive youngster to toughen up. If your child is always getting gypped out of his turn on the playground or having his toys snatched away at preschool, he may not realize you think it's okay to stand up for himself or he may not know how to do it politely. "Children don't always realize there's a middle ground between giving in and being pushy right back," says Dr. Hanson. "Explain that it's fine for him to demand his fair share, and then give him specific suggestions on how he could handle similar situations that come up in the future."

One mother found that modeling the right behavior helped her daughter learn to deal with a bossy neighbor. "My husband and I told our daughter that she didn't have to automatically do whatever this girl wanted." But the advice didn't sink in until their daughter saw her mother in action: "Once when we were dyeing Easter eggs, the pushy girl came into our kitchen and started grabbing all the eggs. I said, "You can color these two, but then the other kids get a turn." Our daughter got the idea and gradually stopped letting the neighbor dominate."

Discourage peer worship

Some children shy away from asserting their true selves because they want to fit in or to emulate a cherished pal. A few years ago, Sherry Whay Bieganski, noticed that her 4-year-old daughter, Maryn, was copying all of her friends: "If we were in a restaurant and Hannah ordered pizza, for example, Maryn would order that too, even though she doesn't really like it." Sherry explained to Maryn that it was okay for her to decide for herself: I told her that no one would like her any more or less if she disagreed with them. In fact, I said, it makes life more interesting. I had to remind her a few times, but pretty soon, when she saw that her friends didn't leave her, she stopped being such a follower."

But what if your child won't take a stand despite your best efforts? "My four-year-old daughter, Kate, has a friend who pouts and withdraws when she doesn't get her way. Kate always gives in to keep the peace. I've told her to say, 'Fine, let's play when you're ready,' but she's not willing to," says William Schwarz, New York.

In a case like this, Fischoff advises you explain that while a friend may get annoyed, even angry, she probably won't stop liking her. Ask your child how she feels when you don't let her get her way-she still loves you, right? Also prepare her for the possibility that her playmate will reject her, and explain that a friend who doesn't respect other people's opinions isn't worth having.

Don't be worried if your child's shyness persists; maybe she's just not ready to assert herself. Many reticent kids grow into strong-minded teens.

Let her call the shots-sometimes

If you're always telling your child exactly what to do and when to do it, he won't learn how to take the initiative. So instead of just unilaterally saying, "Now we're going to the park," or "Let's play hide-and-seek," encourage him to decide for himself what activities he'd most like to do.

Sarah Fitzsimmons let her then 4-year-old daughter, Samantha Rose, pick out what she was going to wear each day. "I wanted her to feel that she was listened to, that she had control over her life and that her opinions mattered," she says. "Part of being assertive is having confidence in your ability to make good choices. So I gave her room to make some mistakes-wearing shoes that were too small, for instance. That way she could learn how to correct herself."

This isn't to say that you have to go along with your child every time he decides to do something -just that you shouldn't ignore or negate his feelings. If, for instance, your son wants to go to a friend's birthday party on the same weekend you've made arrangements to visit your mother, try saying, "I know you're disappointed, and it's okay to feel upset. But we've already made plans to see Grandma." If you acknowledge your child's feelings, he'll be more comfortable airing them in the future.

Practice, Practice

Once you've laid the groundwork for assertiveness, encourage your kids to practice in the "real" world. Laura Pinnick has encouraged her children to order for themselves in restaurants from the time they were preschoolers. "I wanted them to learn that though the waitress is there to serve them, they still need to be polite and say 'please' and 'thank you.'"

The goal is to teach your kids to make their needs known in a polite, nonconfrontational way. Children also learn by example, says Dr. Hanson, so when you stand up for yourself-when returning damaged merchandise to a reluctant store owner, say, or stopping someone from cutting ahead in line-try to be as friendly, forth-right, and matter-of-fact about it as possible.

Encourage kids to think for themselves

Once your child is old enough to carry on a conversation, encourage her to speak her mind-even if you disagree with her. That means, for example, that you can't get annoyed with your daughter for disliking your best friend's son. "If a child is shot down every time she has an opinion that differs from those of their parents, she'll shy away from asserting herself," points out Fischoff. Do, however, insist that she treat your friend's son cordially.

The dinner table is a great place to promote independent thinking. Ask a 3- or 4-year old what her favorite color is, and why. Ask a school-age child who the best basketball player is, what she'd do with a millions dollars, or why there's so much pollution even though almost everyone thinks polluting is bad. Posing open-ended or provocative questions shows a child there isn't necessarily one right answer in life. And teaching her she can arrive at her right answer will help her trust her own opinions. Plus, she'll get practice verbalizing her position and listening to the other side of the argument. And being able to stand up for what you believe-without alienating others- is the ultimate badge of assertiveness.

Other useful resources

Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots has established the Drew Bledsoe Foundation Parenting With Dignity program. Bledsoe says of his success "my parents helped me the most to be what I am today" and his goal is to help other parents give their children the best possible start. For more information, see http://www.drewbledsoe.com/.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013