I was once at the playground with my friend Anand and his two-and-a-half-year-old little daughter, Ananya. While Ananya went to play, we stood around talking. Suddenly the little girl came rushing to us, saying that there were some Didis using the slide and she was afraid that they wouldn’t let her use it. Even though the older girls didn’t actually tell her that they wouldn’t let her join in, she realised there was some kind of turn taking among the participants.
In this situation, what should Anand as a parent do? Should he speak to the other children and let Ananya have her turn, or should he ask Ananya to speak to the older girls and try and get herself a turn?
Pros and cons of both options
Both the options have their own pros and cons. If Anand chooses the first option and speaks to the older girls, Ananya’s turn may come earlier, thus resolving the situation. But she won’t learn to articulate her thoughts and feelings and stand up for herself. Moreover, she will perhaps expect her father to come to her rescue in similar situations in the future. Where Anand is concerned, choosing the first option will mean he will get some free time for himself and to speak to me as well while Ananya is engaged in playing.
If he chooses the second option, Ananya will have to speak herself to the older girls, who are completely new to her, and will probably have to wait for her turn. She will very likely be scared to do this, and will need more of Anand’s conscious attention and support. Anand may even have to deal with Ananya crying if the older children refuse to listen to her and give her a turn. For Anand, letting Ananya do the talking will mean that he will have to pay more attention to her and won’t be able to either talk to me or on his phone.
The advantages of being assertive
If Ananya’s ability to express herself is encouraged, in the long run, it will help her to be assertive and this will pay off more than her father resolving the situation for her. It will help her understand her own feelings and respect them. She will have faith in herself and be able to express herself with ease. When faced with a situation in which she is uncomfortable, she will be able to share her feelings with others. An assertive child is also respectful of differing opinions, and is less likely to feel threatened by them.
Anand chose the second option. He asked Ananya to speak to the older girls and request them to give her a turn. In Ananya’s life, her parents have consciously chosen to involve her totally in her learning.
What exactly is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for oneself and express one’s own thoughts and feelings with honesty, firmness and calmness. It is a healthy way of communication, where someone expresses their opinion without being passive or aggressive about it. Children, as young as two-and-a-half to three years of age, who are preschoolers, can be taught this skill, as Anand demonstrated with his daughter.
Assertiveness is the positive form of aggressiveness. Assertive people are strong enough to ignore negative influences. They think independently and are ready to speak up for themselves and ask for what they want.
Assertiveness is the ability to act in harmony with one’s self-esteem without hurting others.
How do you teach your preschooler to be assertive?
Let’s take a look at how you can teach your preschool-going child this skill.
1. Model assertive behaviour: What you model is what your child learns. Children learn a lot through observation. Your preschooler is very likely to learn and imitate your style of communication, which is why you should be aware of how you are communicating yourself. You could display assertive behaviour when you are speaking to the child; for instance, while negotiating when to go home after a visit to the park; or during your interactions with your spouse, household help or colleagues.
2. Ask your preschooler’s opinion on things: One of the healthiest ways of helping a child learn to communicate assertively is to ask him for his opinion on things that involve him. You can do this through simple ways; for example, asking the child, “What would you like to eat for breakfast?” If you think that’s too open-ended a question, you could give him a choice and ask “Would you like to eat porridge or roti for breakfast?” or “Which dress would you like to wear?” If he says he doesn’t like the dress he is wearing and asks you to take it off, you could ask, “You said you don’t like this dress, does it poke you or is it something else?” Encourage him when he shares his views by listening to him attentively and following through on his opinion.
3. Teach your preschooler to listen: Asking your child for her opinion is likely to have a larger impact on her as she will also learn to listen to another person’s point of view. You could also encourage your child to ask for the other person’s opinion, or when asking for her opinion, you could share your opinion on matters you are discussing. You could also encourage her to check with you by saying “Would you like to know how I feel about it?”
4. Teach him to recognise his feelings: Teach your preschooler the names of basic feeling words such as happy, sad, angry and scared. Use pictures with facial expressions, if you’d like to make it more visually appealing. Encourage him to use these words to express how he is feeling and teach him that everyone has feelings. For example, Ananya would often say “Ananya went swimming, Ananya is soooo happy.” She sounded confident when she expressed herself, and often in situations when she was upset, she would express herself clearly as well. “Ananya fell down from the swing today and she cried so much.” “Papa went to Delhi, Ananya misses Papa.” To teach her to share her feelings, you could also tell your preschooler to imagine the feelings of her toy while she is playing with it. Say, while playing ‘Doctor-doctor’, you could tell your child, “Oh, Pluto has fever, how is he feeling?”, “How is his Mama feeling?” Teaching your child how to express her feelings will help her relate to the internal experience of the feeling and create a fertile ground for building perspective taking behaviour and empathy skills. This will help your child respect herself and others who are different from her and accept differing opinions more readily.
5. Teach your child to say ’No’: A child needs to know when to say no, and that saying ‘no’ is ok. The message that needs to go across to him is that he will not be rejected or humiliated for saying no. For instance, if your child is uncomfortable with sitting on the lap of a particular relative or a stranger or giving somebody a kiss, it is important to listen to him instead of forcing him to do so. It is equally important to speak to the child and ask him the reason for his refusal, perhaps at a later point in time.
Learning to say ‘no’ is also helpful for your child; it helps her develop a healthy body image. She will learn to have a say in who touches her body and speak up when she doesn’t like the manner in which she is touched. On the other hand, disregarding a child’s opinion continually and forcing her to do something will give her the message that her opinion doesn’t matter and could result in lower self-esteem and self-doubt. Then if the child faces abuse, she will find it difficult to talk to you about it.
The problems of not being assertive
To help deepen your understanding of how being assertive will help your child, let’s look at how your preschooler will be impacted if he lacks assertiveness.
People who struggle with this skill often behave in either a passive or aggressive manner. You could look closely for such behaviour in your child as well.
When preschoolers behave in a passive manner, they share their opinions in an extremely timid way and, more often than not, are either ignored or persuaded to change their view. In the hope of making friends, they seek to please others and are afraid of being disliked and rejected if they express views that differ from those of others. They have low self-confidence, bottle up their feelings, feel irritable and cry easily. They are also more prone to being made the butt of jokes at school, and may even be bullied. Their physical health may be affected and they may have difficulty sleeping and have a lower level of immunity. They also absent themselves from school often.
Children who display aggressive behaviour dominate others and are not open to hearing others’ points of view. They are more likely to use force to get what they want. They don’t understand their own feelings well and, as a result, find it difficult to communicate them to others. Your child would be more likely to throw tantrums, shout or hit to make himself heard and feel that his opinions are taken more seriously if he behaves more aggressively. Research states that children who engage in high levels of aggression are impulsive and experience a delay in language development.
Assertiveness rests upon open and respectful communication, and in families where it is practised, parents and children share a healthy trusting relationship as they know that the opinions of both sides matter. As you can see, being assertive is an extremely important skill in life; so, go ahead and help your preschooler to develop this skill.
Parul enjoys holding space for people and is a Psychologist who is passionately practicing Compassionate Communication. She works with teenagers, parents, young adults and adults. She also enjoys travelling, meeting new people, understanding their practices and beliefs and sharing them through her writing. She provides face-to-face and online counselling sessions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org