Speaking up for yourself in a way that commands respect could be one of the most important social skills our children learn. Far too many adults still struggle with how to speak our truth without blowing our stacks or going along with something reluctantly only to regret it later. But, imagine if we could give our kids a head start growing their Strong Voices early on? Not only does assertive communication help people get their practical and emotional needs met, it paves the way for healthy, mutually respectful relationships. For children, it could also be a life-saver.
Children who can speak up for themselves can tell adults they need help, that they’re lost, or that they don’t want to go along in an unsafe situation when they’re feeling uncomfortable. They can tell other children they want to be included or treated better. Even just knowing how to be assertive gives kids an unspoken confidence, which can help ward off bullies and predators. Later in adulthood, having a strong voice helps you be noticed in staff meetings, ask for a raise, or just assert your worth amongst critics and keep your self-respect intact.
Social skills are best learned early and built over time. And, as with all kinds of training, it’s easiest to start with the 2-pound weight and work your way up. So, here are some every day, teachable moments that give kids the chance to develop their Strong Voices slowly and steadily over time:
1. Expect your children to order for themselves with the server in a restaurant. Coach them on how to do so until they’re comfortable doing it by themselves with comments like, “And, what do you want for your side dish?” or “Speak a little louder, sweetie.” Most servers will be surprisingly patient.
2. Let your children buy things from the cashier directly. Depending on your child’s age, stay right next to them to help, or watch from further away. If they’re
shy, remind them that their money’s just as green as anyone else’ money.
3. Expect your children to greet people when they arrive and say “good-bye”
when they leave. After all, greetings are a time-honored way to show people
respect. They also give your kids practice speaking to other adults. If they’re shy
talking, give them the option to wave or use a high-five.
4. Respect your child’s right to NOT hug someone. NEVER force them to have physical contact with someone, but offer other options like that hand wave or
high-five. Back your kids up with statements like, “When we’re not in the mood to
hug, we give ‘high-fives.’ How’s your high-five these days?” Not only are you
helping your child assert his or her right, you are role-modeling having a Strong Voice AND Standing up for Yourself with Kindness.
5. Back up your child at the first indication that they want someone to stop.
Take it seriously when big brother or sister keeps rough-housing after younger
sibling’s first quiet murmuring of displeasure. Children need to see that their
words matter, especially when they’re asserting their boundaries. On the other
hand, children also need to see that it’s important to respect other people’s
boundaries – regardless of whether their younger sibling manages to clearly
articulate “stop” or not.
6. Encourage your child to let a friend know when they feel disappointed, hurt,
angry, or sorry. This could be done verbally or with a written note – with or
without an adult present. Let your child decide which way they feel most
comfortable. She or he will likely find it easier and more effective to talk to that
friend individually rather than doing so in front of a whole group of kids.
7. Encourage your child to let a friend know when they appreciate something
or are grateful. Giving compliments (verbally or in a note) is a simple way to use
your voice for good, while letting another person know what makes you happy.
While you’re at it, take the time to help your kids write old-fashioned “thank you”
notes with their own handwriting and in their own words.
8. Keep your expectations consistent regardless of others’ gender, race,
ethnicity, age or other apparent difference. It may seem safer for your child to
speak to adults who share your background, but that’s not enough. They need to
be able to engage with all kinds of people. In the process, they may just find that
communication can be a powerful tool for bridging human divides.
9. Use your own Strong Voice with others, including your children. It can be easy
to fall into that old trap and think that parents should put aside our own needs for
the sake of the kids. But, when you let your kids know what you need as a human
being in your own right, you model sharing your Strong Voice. Your kids get to
experience the freedom of a trustworthy relationships where people say what they mean, and you get to speak up for yourself.
Using a Strong Voice doesn't mean yelling - not in a paradigm where real strength comes from within. Using a Strong Voice means speaking your truth in a way that upholds your self respect, while also respecting the rights of others. And, as parents, it's wondrous when you start to hear your child speak those kernels of inner truth with calm, clear intention. Strong young Voices are music to the ears. Pure harmony.