Raising Confident Kids

Raising Children to Stand up for Themselves

photo courtesy of The Mother Company

Susan was the “mean girl” in my junior high school. She taunted and tortured Gabriela for months, but I never confronted Susan or helped Gabriela. I witnessed Gabriela’s pain and wanted to respond, but I did not understand how to act on my feelings at that age, nor did I want to risk becoming Susan’s next victim. I felt guilty about my inaction for years until I apologized to Gabriela, and I’ve often thought about what parents can do to increase the likelihood that our children will be confident enough to stand up for themselves and others.

Here are five tips to help grow those skills:

1) Encourage your child to converse with adults in your social group

Consider these two requests:
“The adults are talking now, so be quiet!”
 versus “Mommy needs to talk with Grandpa, so please give us a moment.”

While some conversations should remain private, it’s important not to create a divide whereby adults have a voice and children do not. The first example above demands silence, whereas the second example requests time and patience. Both are clear, but only the second is gentle and respectful. It also explains Mommy’s need so the child understands her thought process and can learn to link communication and behavior. It’s important to create a family environment where all voices can be heard, and the adults are not intimidating. We want our children to feel comfortable approaching a teacher, for example, if there’s a problem on the playground. If they learn, on the other hand, that when adults are talking, they should not speak up, they might not even consider approaching, even in times of trouble.

I teach writing at UCLA, and I can often tell who among my college students has had years of practice speaking with adults, versus the students who tend only to speak with peers in their own age group. Students who are more comfortable speaking with adults also seem more assertive, more willing to attend office hours and ask for help, more likely to participate in class, and more at ease in a range of social or professional settings—at every age.

2) Allow for daily choices

We often spend so much time preparing children to deal with inappropriate or threatening behavior that we miss more subtle opportunities to train our children to trust their instincts. I recently visited a friend and met her shy 8 year-old, Ben, for the first time. I could feel Ben’s discomfort when my friend insisted he greet me with a big hug and kiss. I do understand the desire to model social behavior, but the forced affection made Ben uncomfortable, and I would have preferred to respect his space. Perhaps if we spent the afternoon together, he might feel receptive to a hug goodbye, and then he’d be making the choice to connect in a way that aligns with his natural disposition. Making regular, even small, daily choices empowers children. It lets them know they have the ability to shape their experience, and that they can do it in their own time and in accordance with their comfort level.

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This article originally appeared on The Mother Company, a site which aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children.