The agreeable child

Why an overly compliant kid can be too good for his own good

Who wouldn’t love to have a kid like Lindy? Her mom, Deanna Bracewell* of Kamloops, BC, says, “She’s one of the most caring, co-operative, respectful, gentle kids around.”

And agreeable — perhaps too agreeable. “She never says ‘boo’ about much of anything. She doesn’t stand up for herself or voice her opinion. She often gets walked on by her friends — she does more than her share of school work because they say, ‘You’re so good at this,’ and she just goes along rather than upsetting someone.” It worries Bracewell, especially now as Lindy, 12, moves on to high school. She’s concerned that her daughter’s compliant nature might make her an easy target for getting hurt or picked on. “She thinks her friends are always right and, because of that, she doesn’t speak up for fear of losing their friendship.”

A kid vulnerable to whims of others

Of course we want our kids to be co-operative. We tend to reward them when they’re obedient and praise them when they do what we ask without grumping. Fran Rauenbusch, school psychologist with the the Toronto Catholic District School Board, says, “That’s a great social skill to have — to be able to read what other people are looking for. If you look at raising kids, accommodating children are so pleasant to have around.” But, she stresses, “we’re raising future adults, not children, and that’s the issue. Adults — and adolescents too — have to be good decision makers. That doesn’t happen unless they’ve had practice.” A kid who goes along with what others want isn’t getting any practice making his own decisions, and he’s vulnerable to the whims of others. Eventually he will encounter situations where he has to assert himself — a friend who’s encouraging him to try drinking, an employer who’s taking advantage of him, a partner who’s too controlling. Vancouver parenting coach Barbara Desmarais adds, “It’s nice to go with the flow, but how does this translate as they grow up? We do not want our children to be taken advantage of or exploited or abused by others. We want them to be able to stand up tall and believe in themselves.”

Still, a child who shrugs when you ask what she wants to do on Saturday shouldn’t cause concern. Some kids are just easygoing. “But on the things that matter to them, they can be appropriately assertive,” says Rauenbusch. “It’s kids who are never appropriately assertive, who always defer that parents would worry about.”

If some kids are too obliging by temperament, others are responding to family dynamics. “In a family, kids learn to belong in different ways,” explains Cathy Lumsden, psychotherapist with the Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group in Ottawa. “They may get into roles. The good kid is often ‘the pleaser’ or ‘the accommodator’ and that’s how they get their sense of belonging.” This can be especially true if a sibling takes up a lot of the parents’ time and attention because of a medical issue or disability.

A parent’s temperament may have an impact too. As Desmarais explains: “If children are fearful of punishment or they have a parent whose temperament is unpredictable and prone to outbursts, they learn to go along because they fear consequences if they don’t. It doesn’t mean we should let children be in control — it just means they’re more likely to be able to assert themselves later in life if they’ve been raised in a home where they feel safe to voice their opinion.”

*Names changed by request.

Help kids learn to stand up and be heard

Here’s how to help kids learn to stand up and be heard:

Encourage plenty of free play. “When kids are in a lot of structured activities, they’re always taking direction from somebody else: ‘Now we’re going to do this,’” says Desmarais. “We want kids to be in situations where they think for themselves.”

Ask what your child thinks. Try “Is this choice good for you too?” They may not get their own way, but it helps them stop and sort out what they want versus what they think their parents want.

Help your child identify his talents. Your child has personal strengths beyond being good at a sport or clever in school. Lumsden explains that you could point out your child’s persistence or her ability to break issues down into parts really quickly — qualities that we might take for granted. Kids who are too compliant need to be reminded that they’re unique and entitled to their own likes and dislikes.

Don’t insist on blind obedience. It’s healthier for kids to challenge our authority sometimes, Desmarais urges. “We might think we want a child who always does what he is told, but we really don’t. We want kids to be critical thinkers with minds of their own.”

Give real choices. Picking weapons in a computer game doesn’t count! Rauenbusch explains that kids in many families spend a lot of time passively watching TV or playing games –– but those activities really don’t address social development. Cards and board games involve decision making in a social setting –– as does hanging out with friends, sans screen.

Really listen to your child. If you sense that he’s gone along with something even though he didn’t want to, Desmarais advises giving him an example of what he can say next time: “If you don’t want to do something your friends are asking you to do, it’s OK to say no. You can tell them you’d rather do something else right now — but thanks anyway.”

Notice her spine. Any time your child stands up for herself or shares an opinion, acknowledge her accomplishment, suggests Desmarais. Say something like “Good for you! You stood up for yourself and that’s really important.” Even if she’s expressing an opinion you don’t agree with, she needs to hear that it’s OK to have a point of view.

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