Helping Kids Speak Up for Themselves

This post is for parents whose children lack an assertive voice. When Alicen was a toddler, if someone took a toy or did something she didn’t like, she would just stand there or cry. When she was a preschooler, she would sadly walk away or come bury her face against my leg. She didn’t have an assertive voice. She didn’t readily stand up for herself.

There is a series of steps to teaching children an assertive voice. Again, this is not a quick fix. We started this process with Alicen six years ago, and we continue to work on it in small ways. Clearly she has made great progress, but we are still addressing the issues. If you have a child who lacks assertive voice, you’ll have to make a decision about which steps are necessary depending on age and comfort level.

The first thing I ask any child, whether they are at the first step or the last, whether they are two or seven years old, is, “did you like that?” It gets kids turned around. They stop thinking, “oh, poor me. I am so sad,” and they start thinking, “no. I didn’t like that.” They start to think about standing up for themselves.

For the remainder of this example, let’s assume another child took a toy your child was playing with. After you ask, “did you like that?” the entry step is to then go with the child and do the talking for them. Take their hand, walk with them to the other child and say calmly, “they weren’t done with that. they’d like to finish their turn.” You are modeling the language that you hope the child will some day take as their own. Eventually, you want them to say, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like to finish my turn.”

Once they are comfortable with that, you can move to the next step. After asking whether they liked that, go with them and provide an example of what to say on the way. You might take your child’s hand and say, “when we get there, say, ‘I’m not done,’ or, ‘I want that back.’” Hopefully, you arrive at the other child, and your child will try out the language you suggested. This step may take several attempts. It took many exchanges before Alicen actually spoke up for herself. For quite a while, I would give examples, we would arrive at the other child, and Alicen would just look up at me blankly. If this happens, continue to model the language.

Once they are comfortable speaking up when you provide examples, think about stepping out a bit more. First, you can give examples, and then, stay back while they go over alone. After you ask if they liked that, you can say, “ok, I’m going to stay here; when you go over, you can say, ‘I want to finish my turn.’” Or, you can go with them and prompt them to come up with the language on their own. You can say, “I’ll go with you. What are you going to say to them?”

Whichever path you take, the next step is to have them come up with the language and go over on their own. This is the last step, and this is where Alicen continues to be today. She’ll run up to me at the playground and say, “she took that from me!” I’ll ask, “did you like that?” She’ll reply, “no, I didn’t!” I’ll ask, “what are you going to say?” She’ll reply, “I’m going to tell her that I want to finish my turn.” I’ll say, “okay, go try that,” and off she’ll go. I’m not really doing much. She is just rebounding off me. I am there providing support. I assume that when she is away from me, she is handling much of this on her own.

What if your child uses their assertive voice, and it doesn’t work? You coach them, and they bravely walk over and say, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like it back please.” The other child rolls their eyes and says, “so what? I’m playing with it now.” As a parent you have choices. I think any of them are fine, just think about it ahead of time. Be prepared.  You might mention it to their parents and hope for support. You might go over and reiterate for your child. Another child might be more willing to listen to you than to your child. You might let your child know that they did the right thing. They used the right language, but sometimes things don’t work out as we plan. This is true in life. As adults, we might ask another in a restaurant, “could you light that in a few minutes? We’re about to leave.” The other patron rolls their eyes and say, “So what? I’m smoking it now.” Sometimes things don’t work out as we plan.

Then, I think of Claire and other children who fall at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Even as a toddler, she told people what she thought when she thought it. I have seen other children who speak out a bit too loudly when they are assertive. As long as no one is getting hurt, I want children to keep their assertive voices. Rather than disciplining a child for being too loud at this, parents should coach and model other ways for children to better express themselves.

Want Kids to Listen? Stop Repeating Yourself!

It’s an all too familiar scenario…

Mom is almost ready to leave, children are still coloring in the kitchen. Mom says, “hey, time to get your shoes on, and could you turn off the tv, please?” Mom keeps moving to put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Children ignore mom’s request and keep coloring. Mom walks over to gather her things, turns off the tv herself and says, “really, get your shoes.  We gotta go.” Children continue coloring. One child looks up briefly, sees mom looking through her purse and checking her phone, so back to coloring. Mom, without looking up says, “shoes.” Mom, putting on her coat snaps, “shoes now! (five seconds pass) That’s one….(five seconds), two….(five seconds), do you hear me? I am counting! GET YOUR SHOES!” Crayons drop, kids move towards shoes. 

Parent asks child to do something. Child ignores request. Parent repeats request. Child ignores. Parent escalates. Child ignores. Parent, who was initially calm, loses it and yells. Child listens and moves into action. Parent is frustrated that child doesn’t listen.

The unfortunate thing if you are in this cycle is you are actually teaching your child to NOT listen. By repeating the request, you are directly teaching them to tune you out. The child is learning that, when you start talking, you are going to say it two or three more times, so they wait. They learn that they have at least a few more minutes from the first request before they have to listen. They learn you are unpredictable, sometimes you really mean it, and sometimes you just don’t, so they watch.

To break the habit of repeating yourself, you have to make a new habit. The idea is to say it once, and then expect them to listen. Accept that at least initially, you may have to move into action and help them to listen. You may have to help them at first because together you’ve created the pattern of tuning out. So let’s say you buy in, and starting now, decide to say things once and expect children to listen. For starters, the new pattern is going to fail. Tomorrow morning, you get their attention and very clearly say, “it’s time to go. Put on your shoes, please.” They are not likely to listen as listening the first time is not the familiar habit. Rather than repeat and frustrate yourself, move into action. Take child to shoes, or take shoes to child, and get them started. You can still give them choices about which pair of shoes or which step to sit on. You can give them a challenge to put them on before you sing the alphabet. You can still be polite and say please. The point is, you can still talk, just avoid the repeated asking them to put on their shoes again. Hopefully you will be less frustrated. Even if you have to stop what you are doing to help, at least you only said it once.

Have faith that you are building a new and better habit. It should only take a few weeks before a six-year-old starts to realize, “oh, you are only going to say things once. You actually expect me to listen.” With a two-year-old, it can take until they are three, but it is a far better habit to be in as a parent, to say things once and expect listening than to start down the path of repeating to be ignored.

We had a mom in class who said, “I get this, but it’s crazy. I must say 16 times every morning, ‘put on your shoes.’ No one is listening to me, but I”m making four lunches, and I’ve got four boys running amok, and you want me to stop making lunch.” Yes, I either want her to stop making lunches and help them listen, OR, better yet, save her breath and wait until she is done making lunches, and then gather everyone to ask them to put on shoes. Wait until you are in a position to move into action and expect listening. In her current habit she is directly teaching them to tune her out 16 times, making the rest of her day that much harder. Clearly there is a need to change the habit.

%d bloggers like this: