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You're Not My Boss: Learning to Be Assertive Rather Than Aggressive

"I guess when she's sixteen and starts dating the college freshmen, I'll want her to be able to say no, but does she have to practice on me now?"
– The father of a ten-year-old

We were sitting at the table drinking an ice-cold glass of lemonade, garnished with fresh-cut lemons. "Mom," my daughter began, "is it true that squirting lemon juice in a kid's mouth will stop him from saying bad things?" Before I could inquire where she'd heard this advice, my son plucked a lemon slice from his glass and quipped, "You mean like this," as he stuffed it into his mouth. He grimaced when the lemon juice struck his tongue, then clamped the lemon firmly between his teeth and flashed us a big yellow smile. "Does that stop you from swearing?" I inquired casually. Popping it out of his mouth, he gleefully retorted, "Hell, no!"

Learning how to get and use power is a critical stage of emotional development for all children. The window for this stage opens some time around your child's fourth birthday and continues for years. You'll know your child has hit it when she turns to you and declares, "You're not the boss of me!" Don't ask me how she learned this sentence structure – I don't know. But I do know that the statement is remarkably common. And once she's sprung this announcement on you, it will probably be followed by the grand slam, "I hate you!" or "You're the meanest parent in the world." Your initial reaction may be one of stunned disbelief and then alarm. If this is how she's talking at four, what will she be like at fourteen?

When your child hits this stage of development, it doesn't have to be a nightmare. Your little angel doesn't have to turn into a bad-mouthed monster. What she's trying to do is figure out how to get and use power. Your job is to teach her the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. The lessons, however, do not begin with lemon juice. They begin with these steps:

  • Enforce clear standards: Teach your child to be respectful.
  • Establish an understanding of the emotions that fuel the words and actions.
  • Teach words that allow your child to get and use power respectfully.
Step One: Enforcing Your Standards: Teaching Your Child to Be Respectful
It was Friday, the end of the week, time to unwind. We were eating dinner around the antique oak harvester's table. The conversation was easy and warm. My son had a basketball game later in the evening. Reveling in the mood of the moment, I suggested, "Why don't we all go to the game and then we can stop for ice cream afterward." The words had no more left my mouth when my daughter, then eleven, shoved her chair back from the table, threw her napkin onto her plate, and declared, "I'm not going to his stupid game. You can't make me!"

Blood rushed to my face. I could feel the heat of it and the pulse pounding in my throat. The vehemence of my daughter's response shocked me. We'd just been joking and laughing. Where had this intensity come from? And I felt invaded. This wasn't acceptable behavior to me. I'd made an innocent suggestion, that was all. I took a deep breath. "Try again," I said. My eyes boring into hers, my voice firm.

She shrank back in her chair, knowing she'd blown it. She, too, took a deep breath, sat up straight in her chair, and then calmly said, "Mother, it's been a very stressful week. I haven't had any time to myself. I've proven myself to be very responsible. The neighbors are home tonight. May I please stay home alone?"

While I still may not have been able to consent to my daughter's request, you can bet that I was much more open to listening to her. Most important, we were still talking and working together. We had started practicing the skill of being assertive rather than aggressive when she was four. Seven years later she was able to use it after a firm reminder. It took another two years before she was able consistently to assert herself without being aggressive first. And when she was fifteen and establishing her independence, I was ecstatic that she had this skill. The lessons begin with learning the limits.

The Difference Between Bulldozing and Persuading
When your child steps over the line by using words, phrases, or a tone that is offensive or invasive to you, call him on it. You can tell him, "Stop. That's bulldozing." Most kids know what a bulldozer looks like. It creates for them a mental image of a great beast of a machine pushing dirt and rocks in front of it. The term helps them recognize what they are doing to other people. And, it doesn't carry the emotional baggage of "Stop sassing," "Stop being mouthy," or "Stop talking back."

Your goal when you say "stop" is to clarify the limit and to allow you and your child to pause. Don't get pulled into a power struggle trying to force him to stop. If you scream or threaten, "Don't you talk to me like that," or "Stop it, or I'll wash your mouth out with soap," not only will you disconnect, but he'll retort back, "You can't make me," or "Just try it." Remember, he's trying to find out how to get and use power in your family. You want him to learn how to be assertive. It's very important that when he's sixteen he knows how to say no to his peers. So rather than directly taking the full force of his attack, redirect that energy. Se your limit and then immediately help him understand what he's feeling and what he can say. The challenge, of course, is to keep your cool long enough to do it.

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From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.


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