Grateful but Assertive: Concrete Ways to Better Support A Kind Child

TL;DR: Social emotional learning starts at home, in early childhood. Parents are best suited to teach children the nuance of navigating social interactions in the broader world. Raising kind children rather than people pleasers is a perfect example. We must strike a balance when encouraging our children to be giving by also teaching assertiveness. That means helping them understand that it is important to have your voice heard and that disagreements are ok. To help our children absorb these messages, we have to model them at home and out. 

Family Rituals Is How Social Emotional Learning Begins

Social Emotional Learning Starts at Home

Parents and families are critical agents in helping children develop social and emotional know-how. Family is a person’s first context of socialization, where children experience and practice collective feeling, relating and doing through everyday interactions. 

We often misuse “social emotional learning” to mean developing empathy and manners. However, SEL is actually the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success. This most certainly includes resilience and cost-benefit frameworks.

The goal is to help children ultimately grow into successful and contributing citizens outside the family. This process begins in early childhood by offering a safe, supportive, forgiving, and unconditionally loving environment. The habits and skills acquired while growing up at home are long lasting. 

The broader social world will either complement or contradict family experiences

The core of a child’s SEL foundation will be the family and cultural values important to the family. As children spend more time outside of their home environment, their SEL experiences will either be complementary or contradictory.  For most children, there will be inevitable mismatches. It can be as innocuous as whether or not you remove your shoes when you enter a home and brush your teeth before or after breakfast. And you soon realize that shared family rituals are specific to a family’s beliefs when you enter a friend’s home and leave your shoes on! Navigating these “mismatches” through age-appropriate opportunities is a critical skill as well.  

Parents, not schools, are best suited to teach kids about nuance in social contexts

Let’s Raise Kind Children Who Also Know How to Stand Up for Themselves

Nuance in SEL can feel challenging.  For instance, you want to raise kind children, but you do not want them to be pushovers.  As a parent, I often worry about the balance between raising grateful, considerate children vs. messaging that sends them into the  people-pleaser or, gasp, the pushover camp. As we enter the season of gratitude and giving, this is an important point to understand.

Why does balance matter in SEL?

In the long run, kids who don’t learn to stand up for themselves may be more prone to anxiety and depression, influenced by peer pressure or apt to become passive-aggressive. Since they’ve seldom had their needs met, these kids can have anger or hostility build up within them, and they end up acting aggressively toward others or themselves.

What should I be monitoring?

  1. Often, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If any or all main caregivers exhibit this type of “people pleasing” behavior, take a closer look at what changes you need to make in how you interact with each other and as a family.  A dominating parent can expect obedience, while the quieter parent makes very few decisions. The shy child can model from the passive parent.  Talking things out in front of your kids can be helpful if you show positive conflict-resolution skills.
  2. Culture plays a part, too. Think about how different generations interact in your family. Do you need to make some space for respectful discussions?  
  3. School influence. Traditional schools can encourage passivity, with an emphasis on obedience and task completion rather than debate. The school model that targets disobedience may struggle to make room for assertiveness.

How to help children acquire “assertiveness skills”:

  1. Through conversations. Talk about your child’s need to respect her own rights in order to create and maintain healthy friendships. Talk about healthy friendships and teach your child to ask himself, “Would a good friend do this?”  Talk about the exceptions: ‘If someone pushes you, you can push back. If someone keeps grabbing and they’re not listening, then you can grab back.’
  2. Through Role playing. Encouraging exceptions to the usual “hands to yourself” rules might feel dicey, but it may be necessary for some kids. Role-playing with assertive words and actions can also help children rehearse for upcoming squabbles or recurring situations. 
  3. Through Intervention. If you see a child shoving in front of yours in line or stealing her toy, immediate intervention may be required. Step in and tell her to stick up for herself. 
  4. Through Modeling.  If children see their parents storming off to avoid a difficult discussion or, for instance, complaining about poor restaurant service after leaving the establishment — yet saying nothing to the waiter at the time — they’ll do the same. Overprotective parents often end up with less assertive kids. 

Two final thoughts:

Don’t let the pendulum swing too far in either direction.

  1. Picking battles DOES NOT EQUAL being a pushover. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Ultimately, you want a child who knows how to be an engaged citizen in the world. At work, in life. Being a hothead is not the same as being assertive. We’re striving for balance. 
  1. Being too sensitive is also a problem.  “There is a strength in not letting yourself get hurt by people,” says his dad.

Don’t be afraid to let your kids make mistakes.  Distance learning puts parents like this on overdrive, but this is a great way to find the silver lining in this challenging school situation: resist the urge to micro manage your children’s schooling. Instead, talk to their teachers about when you should get involved and how to maximize this opportunity for children to develop grit. 

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