My daughter Cricket likes to play by the rules. But as I’ve recently discovered, I need to teach her how to apply some rules—and when to abandoned them altogether —especially when it comes to asserting herself.
Cricket and I were grocery shopping a few weeks before she started kindergarten. As always, she clicked herself into the shopping cart’s safety belt. I’ve told her many times that she really doesn’t have to do this anymore. But she can read the warning messages on the red plastic seats and insists on using the safety belt.
It was raining heavily when we left the store. As I put the groceries in the car, I balanced an umbrella over the shopping cart, Cricket and me. Then I turned to help Cricket who was struggling to un-click herself. The plastic latch was completely jammed, and I could not get her out of the seat. She started to get nervous saying, “I’ll be stuck here forever! Go get someone from the store to help.”
With the rain pouring down on us, I weighed my options. I could rush into the store screaming in anger (since Cricket’s been stuck before). I could politely ask someone to help us out of the jam (in which case the seatbelt would be available to trap another child). Or, I could take matters into my own hands, so to speak. I decided on the latter. I took a mini-pen knife from my pocketbook, took hold of the black nylon strap, and cut her loose without saying a word.
Cricket was stunned, saying, “Mom, we’re gonna get in trouble! They’ll never let us shop here again!” Picking her up and putting her in the car, I told her, “Sometimes we just need to stand up for ourselves.”
Later that evening, I mulled over Cricket’s reaction. I began to wonder if we are teaching our kids to be too nice, too passive, to the extent that they don’t know when (or how) to assert themselves. With good reason, our society focuses on teaching kids to have good manners. Consider a list of rules they’ll see in their classroom this fall—from kindergarten through high school: Be kind, respectful, and positive; listen, take turns, talk quietly, keep your hands to yourself.
But, you’ll most likely never see a message stating: You have a right to tell someone, Back off. I’m beginning to think we are “be nice-ing” our kids into being pushovers, or even more troublesome, prime targets for bullying. We need to teach our kids when it is —and that it is —okay to be assertive.
Given our society’s focus on playing well with others, this can be hard to do. In retrospect, these always be nice messages start when our children are toddlers and preschoolers. At least for me they did. During playdates —undoubtedly like many moms—I encouraged Cricket to share her toys, say I’m sorry when she doesn’t, play with everyone in the group, and work out problems immediately. Defer to others was the message. Your needs come last. These were not mistakes. I think the mistake is continuing to enforce these rules when our kids become able to decide for themselves how to act based on the situation in front of them.
The day after our shopping trip, I had a mini “assertiveness training workshop” with Cricket. My goal was simple: start a conversation about standing up for ourselves. We role-played about what to do when someone at school is bothering her. It was interesting (and a little disheartening) that her default response was always “please don’t do that” or “I’ll tell the teacher.” Even when I pretended to be a real troublemaker, Cricket had a hard time finding the words and tone to get her message across. We switched roles and I modeled an appropriate but assertive stance. She gave me a look that said, “are you sure I can talk like this, Mom?” Little by little I helped her find the voice to say —firmly and confidently —“Stop That Now!”
This will be an on-going conversation, no doubt. I’m glad I started it with my daughter now, even at the seemingly young age of six. I do not advocate aggression, belligerence or physical violence. But I do want her to realize that she has authority in this world, she has a right to put her needs first, and sometimes being polite is not the answer.