Saturday, January 16, 2010

Assertiveness: Saying No and Being Heard

Being assertive is often a struggle for me. Like many people, I tend to lean toward passiveness or aggression, depending on the situation and how I'm feeling in the moment. The ability to be assertive is important, though, and it is especially important as a parent. Assertive parents are able to set clear, firm limits respectfully- and they are able to teach their children to do the same. Passivity and aggression do not achieve this goal.


We've all heard passive parents interacting with their children. Most of us have probably been those passive parents at times. I know I have. In my experience, I often confuse being nice, gentle, and respectful with being passive- but these are not the same! When a person is passive, they are trying to please others and make everyone happy. In parenting, that often translates into being unclear, indirect, and powerless. Passivity in parenting looks like this:
- Asking a child to accomplish a vague task (rather than being specific). For example, "Be polite" or "Try to be nice."
- Asking questions about the child's behavior that do not communicate what you want the child to do. "Was that nice?" or "Is that what you are supposed to do?"
- Not following through on consequences. "If you do that one more time..." and then a few minutes later, "I'm warning you, if you do that again..."
- Giving power to the child. Asking questions like, "Are you ready for your bath?" instead of saying, "It's bathtime." Asking the child this question gives the child the power to say no.
- Blaming the child for your anger and actions. "Don't make me send you to time-out." "You are driving me crazy."
- Giving children choices when none exist. "Can you get in the car and put your seatbelt on?"
- Ignoring a conflict in hopes that it will magically resolve itself.

As you can probably imagine, communicating with children in a passive way is not very effective, results in a lot of frustration for both parent and child, and teaches children by example to be timid in setting boundaries and to let people walk all over them.


When people are aggressive, they are trying to win by making other people do what they want. Again, we have all seen plenty of examples of parents interacting with their children aggressively, and again, I have been guilty of this. Here are some of the characteristics of aggressive parenting:

- Making "you" statements that focus on the other person rather than the actual problem. "You are so rude."
- Speaking for others and wrongly describing their viewpoints. "You just want to get your way." "You're just making excuses."
- Using words like always and never. "You always make a mess." "You never listen."
- Viewing others as attacking you. "Don't you talk to me that way."
- Using empty, punitive threats. "Don't make me do something I'll regret."
- Imposing overly severe consequences. "No video games for a month."
- Physically responding out of anger by jerking or grabbing the child's arm, threatening to hit, or actually hitting/spanking.

Obviously, when parents model aggression in the face of conflict, they teach their children to respond to conflict aggressively as well. They also teach that it is appropriate to use physical force or disrespectful, shaming words to get others to do what you want.

The Passive-Aggressive Combination

Many parents, myself included, have been guilty of swinging from passivity to aggression. They start off saying things like, "Come on, honey, are you ready to go?" This is passive because they are not clearly stating that it is time to go and they make it sound as though the child has a choice. Then, when the child is not ready to leave and continues playing or says no in response to the question, the parent swings to aggression and says things like, "You get your jacket on right now or we won't come back to your friend's house to play again!" It would be so much easier to just be assertive, saying, "It is time to go home now. Say goodbye to your friend and put on your jacket."


Parents who are assertive are clear about what they want done, and they set firm boundaries. They do not passively give their power away, nor do they inappropriately use their power to strongarm their children. They are straightforward and focus on what they want to happen. Assertive parents do things like:
- State wants and needs clearly and simply. "Put your dishes in the sink."
- Match nonverbal communication to verbal communication. Children read our facial expression, tone of voice, and gestures. We need to nonverbally communicate assertiveness rather than passivity or aggression.
- Give children choices only when they really have choices. Rather than saying "Are you ready to go?" (which implies that the child has a choice in the matter), say "It is time to go, so put your shoes on."
- Give commands that contain usable, helpful information. Saying, "Was that nice?" doesn't tell a child much of anything that is actually useful. Be specific. "Hitting hurts. You may not hit. If someone pushes you, say, 'Stop! I don't like being pushed.'"
- Own and express feelings. "I feel angry when you interrupt me."
- Show respect for the child and enforce rules without teasing, embarrassing, or bullying. It is not assertive to say things like, "Why did you do that? Is that how we treat people?" Just be clear and respectful.

When parents consistently model assertiveness for their children, they will teach their children to be assertive with other people, rather than passive or aggressive. We all want our children to grow up with the ability and confidence to set firm boundaries and clearly interact with others. We do not want our children to grow up to be passive people-pleasers or aggressive bullies. At the end of the fourth chapter of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey says:

Assertiveness is the main skill you will use to set limits for your children. Assertiveness is a very powerful skill that lets you set boundaries with others, and helps you teach your children to set boundaries. These boundaries model and teach the value of respect. In order to be assertive, you must use your Power of Attention, focusing first on what you want, and then expressing your desires in a forthright manner. In a family, in a community, in a democracy, each person must learn to be assertive and stand up for his or her own rights without trampling on the rights of others.

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