Raising an Assertive Child
The spectrum of self-respect is one loaded with connotations and ripe with repercussions for children and parents alike. At one end sits entitlement, a word so loaded that its mere mention inspires parents to do everything in their power to prevent their kids from embodying it. At the other, self-hatred, a state as heartbreaking as a parent can imagine.
Instilling a healthy sense of self-respect in our children has repercussions throughout their entire lives. We know well the stories of the ultra-wealthy heirs and heiresses who believe the rules don’t apply to them and end up broke, directionless, or even imprisoned. Telling our kids that the world revolves around them is a surefire way to wreck their lives.
But the opposite is also true. Children who lack self-respect and submit to any and all who stand in their way will grow up to be adults whose dreams die, whose boundaries are crossed, and whose dignity can be ignored.
So where’s the balance? Let’s consider a word: assertive.
Dictionary.com defines assertive this way: “confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive: aggressive; dogmatic.” Really? Aggressive and dogmatic? Let’s try another. Merriam-Webster has this definition: “characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.” Much better.
Raising an assertive child requires teaching them when to submit and when to speak up. Effective assertiveness is not an “always on” state, but an inner confidence that speaks up when it matters while allowing the spotlight to shine on others frequently. Though not wholly sufficient, assertiveness is essential to protecting our children from being victimized. But protection is not the only benefit to assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the same quality that sees doors of opportunity open and runs into them before they close. It’s the skill that speak up when a teacher asks, “does anyone else have an idea?” and the courage that rises when a boss makes a proposal that everyone disagrees with but no one is willing to speak against.
In the dozens of young entrepreneurs we’ve profiled over the years, assertiveness is among the most consistent qualities. It’s no wonder. Being a young entrepreneur takes more than talent. It takes a dose of courage that is willing to challenge the status quo, face rejection, and take risks.
It takes assertiveness to navigate the “grown up” world of banking as a kid.
It takes assertiveness to resist the temptations of retailers pushing credit card signups.
And it takes assertiveness to walk door-to-door, asking coffee shops to replace their wasteful sugar packets with your innovative replacement.
Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, Outliers, describes an exchange between two different families headed to a routine pediatric visit. The wealthy family preps their child by reminding them that they can ask anything they like. That this is a professional they trust, and one that they pay for his expertise. The poorer family instructs their child to be respectful. To not ruffle any feathers. Both approaches sound wise, but one results in a child who uses the opportunity before him to have questions answered and health concerns erased.
As we parent, it’s vital that we teach respect, courtesy, and honor. (We’ll cover that in a separate post next week.) But it’s also vital that we teach our children to speak up -- for themselves and for others. To know their worth and to assert it when appropriate.
As Eleanor Roosevelt explains, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”