Learning To Be Assertive Starts on the Playground
My seven year old daughter, Charlotte ran to the swing but another girl got there first. So Charlotte silently backed up to wait. A few other girls showed up and started taking turns with the first swinger. Charlotte backed up further.
As grown-ups can attest, it's scary to speak up for yourself.
Can't we identify with Charlotte's feelings of insecurity as she wished the other girls would notice her and offer her a turn? The last thing she wanted to do was to speak up for herself.
People often stay quiet and get mad instead of being assertive.
I watched an adult get overlooked at a fast food restaurant the other day. He didn't say a word to the (well meaning and busy) restaurant employees. He stood silent until he was so mad he shouted his complaints over the counter.
Being assertive isn't the same as being aggressive.
Being assertive is speaking up in a kind, clear way before you're mad. For the man in the restaurant it would have meant saying, "Excuse me, I'd like to order and I think I've been overlooked." Done. Simple. No hurt feelings.
So what makes it so scary? Why do so many of us resist being assertive? I think we fear rejection. I know Charlotte did. She worried the girls on the swing might be mean to her. But practicing being assertive with those girls, right there on the playground was THE THING that would help Charlotte learn to become an assertive person for life.
It's easier for kids to be assertive if we stay close by.
I'll be the first to admit that it's tempting for me to walk away from kids' conflicts and to let them work it out completely on their own. But while Charlotte summoned the courage to be assertive she needed me close by. Not to rescue her and speak for her. But to suggest she look right at the girls and ask politely for a turn. To model that I assumed the girls weren't intentionally overlooking her and to show her that I felt confident they'd listen to her. To stand by. To have her back.
Speaking up for yourself in a kind, clear way works every time.
Charlotte did speak up, the girls did listen. And that's what I find, with kids and with adults. Being assertive works. Being kind and clear to another person invites them to be kind and clear right back.
And when it doesn't work, it still does. Here's what I mean: When we are kind and clear we can feel proud of treating ourselves and others with respect. Regardless of the other person's response, that's always a win. And that's a lesson I want kids to learn from me.
A kid who can be assertive on the playground becomes a tween who's assertive with peers, a young adult who's assertive with boyfriends, a grown-up who's assertive with coworkers.
The swing situation was not really about the swing. It was one small chance for Charlotte to practice being assertive so she will feel more confident the next time she needs to speak up, and the next, and next. That's what we're doing, helping kids build life skills. And if I'm being honest, relearning some ourselves.