Congratulations, Mom and Dad. You’ve raised a well-behaved, unfailingly polite and, by all accounts, exceedingly kind child — exactly as you hoped. Except that, while everyone is raving about how sweet and obedient your kid is, you’re secretly worried that he’s deferring too much to other children, avoids confrontation and doesn’t know how to stick up for himself. Is it possible that your child is too nice — and that, perhaps, you are, too? Passive kids, and their mild-mannered folks, sometimes need to learn to push back.
I can relate. People pleaser, diplomat, pushover… through the years, I’ve been all of these. As the child of an alcoholic father, I learned early that being “easygoing” made people more agreeable, less angry and argumentative. I also learned that treating others the way you want to be treated really does work. So my husband and I have tried to raise our kids, Rowan, 10, and Margaret, 8, to be thoughtful, polite and considerate of others, even if it means putting their own needs last. But we sometimes wonder whether we’re setting them up to be dissatisfied and overly deferential as adults.
Nancy Yan,* a Toronto mother, has been asking herself the same questions lately. Recently, a bunch of classmates called her generally quiet 11-year-old daughter, Charlotte, “stupid.” Charlotte later told her mom about the schoolyard incident, and reported that she chose to say nothing in response, and simply changed the subject. Yan admired Charlotte for not escalating the situation, but she has also realized that her daughter may need to develop her assertiveness as she grows older.
“Charlotte is very mature for her age, and very tuned into how people are feeling,” says Yan. “We’ve taught her to be nice, but now it feels like other kids are taking advantage of her. And as the mama bear, you want to protect her from any negative experience.”
The good news is that it’s never too late to help shy or submissive children become confident adults. “Parents need to make sure their kids’ voices are heard, and that they know disagreements are OK,” explains Julia Daki, a child psychologist in Montreal.
Often, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “My husband is very much like Charlotte,” Yan says. “Before he reacts, he thinks things over. He’ll always express his opinion, but in a very diplomatic way.”
In other families, a dominating parent can expect obedience, while the quieter parent makes very few decisions. “In these situations, the shy child can model from the passive parent, so I ask that parent to try to be more assertive,” says Daki. “A little change in a parent’s behaviour can have a big impact — it’s OK to talk it out in front of your kids if you show positive conflict resolution skills.”
Culture plays a part, too. “With an Asian background,” says Yan, “especially with the grandparents, politeness and respect are ingrained in us. But it’s more lax with each generation, and we do encourage Charlotte and her sister to speak their minds.”
Assertiveness skills can be taught through talking and modelling, says Lisa M. Schab, author of Cool, Calm, and Confident: A Workbook to Help Kids Learn Assertiveness Skills, and a Chicago-area licensed clinical social worker. “Direct teaching can work as prevention or intervention.” A preventative chat could focus, for example, on your child’s need to respect her own rights in order to create and maintain healthy friendships. But 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.
That exact scenario raised concern for Mike Allcroft,* a father in Toronto, as he and his partner observed their rule-abiding and occasionally over-sensitive seven-year-old son, Justin. “In situations where he and another kid wanted something, the other kid would just grab it and walk away, while Justin said, ‘It’s my turn!’” says Allcroft. They worried that nice kids sometimes do finish last. “So we said to him, ‘If someone pushes you, you can push back. If someone keeps grabbing and they’re not listening, then you can grab back.’”
Encouraging exceptions to the usual “hands to yourself” rules might seem dicey, says Schab, but don’t worry — 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. You should also talk about healthy friendships and teach your child to ask himself, “Would a good friend do this?”
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. “Because they never have their needs met, anger or hostility builds up within them, and they end up acting aggressively toward others or themselves,” explains Schab.
I’ve learned that parents must be prepared to walk the talk. Little ones learn a lot from us, and if they see us 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 (guilty!). Daki says that overprotective parents often end up with less assertive kids. “They don’t want their kids to make mistakes — they want the homework or chores to be perfect.” Don’t jump in and do it for them, though. “That doesn’t help kids evolve their confidence or learn to solve problems,” she says.
Even school can encourage passivity, with its emphasis on obedience and task completion rather than debate. “At school, they’re concerned about kids who disobey, so assertiveness isn’t strived for — that’s why it has to come from the family,” explains Daki.
Allcroft, who’s a teacher, agrees. “We don’t want it to be all about empathy, safety and manners — kids need the notion of resilience and risk taking, too.”
As for Charlotte, she and her mom have been practising turning derogatory comments around, and using a good comeback when it’s appropriate. Yan was also heartened when Charlotte took the initiative to plan and run her own charity fundraiser, and then politely pushed back against the school principal when they disagreed about how to allocate the money she’d raised. “She does stand up for herself and her friends — she just picks her battles,” says Yan.
For Justin, who’s only in grade three, one solution has been to wear his imaginary “armour,” which his parents suggested he mentally don to avoid being too sensitive. “There is a strength in not letting yourself get hurt by people,” says his dad.
There are gains, too. When I recently complained, for the first time, about my order at a restaurant, my kids feasted on the rare sight of me taking a stand (as well as the extra fries we received in response). Children like my son and daughter — and Charlotte and Justin — may be less pushy and more afraid of confrontation than others, but they have the best aid they could ask for: concerned and aware parents, actively arming them for the future.
*Some names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline "No More Mr. Nice Guy."