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

When to Seek Help
Stephanie waited until all of the other parents left before she asked me, in a voice that was barely audible, "What do you do if your child says he wants to stab you?"

Preschoolers will often say, "I want to shoot you," or "I want to stab you." This is not unusual behavior. If you clearly set the limit, informing them that such statements are unacceptable, and teach them to say something like, "I'm angry," or "I want a choice," they'll usually respond. If however, there is a vehemence to your child's words, his threats continue despite firm limits, or your child is older, it is time to contact a professional. You'll want to know if your child's behavior has moved beyond what would be considered the "developmental norm" and to seek treatment if necessary.

This is also true of sex talk. Preschoolers love to see the reaction of adults when they add words like butt, penis, vagina, or poop to their vocabulary. You can guide your child by teaching him to use these words in private. If, however, his vocabulary includes words unusual for a child of his age or is expressed with an intensity that startles or invades you, there is the potential that your child has been molested or exposed to inappropriate sexual materials or behaviors. If you are concerned, seek professional guidance and get the information and support you need to help your child.

Keep the Vision
Teaching your child the difference between being assertive and being aggressive takes time. It isn't an easy skill to learn. It requires years of practice and is typically reviewed and refined as your child moves into new stages of development. In case you are feeling your energy flagging, I'll share with you a story that I hope will keep you going.

One night my friend and I were discussing women's sports. "What sports did you play in high school?" she asked.

"I didn't," I replied.

"But you're very athletic," she countered. "Why didn't you?"

"Because," I explained, "when I went to high school, there weren't any organized teams for girls."

Incredulous, she asked, "Why not?"

"Because," I explained, "Title IX legislation, which mandated equal athletic opportunities for women, wasn't enacted until a year after I graduated from high school. And the Minnesota companion law authored by Representative Phyllis Kahn took another few years."

Shocked, she blurted out, "How old are you?"

I'm not that old, but the accepted practice of the time excluded girls from sports. No one questioned it. Thanks to Mrs. Ostergaard our physical education teacher, however, the girls at my school did get the gym for a week of intramural basketball tournaments after the boys-basketball season ended. Of course, we didn't really play basketball. We played by "Iowa rules." Either you were a guard or-a forward. You could dribble the ball only three times, then you had to pass. Guards stayed on the defensive end of the court and never shot. Forwards were on the offensive end and never played defense. Only the ball crossed the center line, not the girls.

Today as I watch my daughter score on a fast break, I am thrilled that somewhere, someone had the gumption to say clearly and firmly "This isn't fair!" And when I watch the Minnesota State Girl's Hockey Tournament and know that there are now six thousand girls on the ice thanks to the voices of five concerned parents, I am reminded that learning to assert oneself is an essential life skill.

If all of this seems a bit too far away from the foot-stomping five-year-old in front of you, remember that sooner than you can imagine she'll be a teenager spending more time with her peers than with you Do you want her to be able to be assertive and strong, even when everyone else is having a few beers or suggesting a party at Todd's house because his parents are gone? If you want your child to be assertive when she's sixteen, she has to start practicing now-with you! It's an essential life skill.

Coaching Tips

  • Learning to be assertive is an essential life skill.
  • You can teach your child to stop bulldozing and instead use words to persuade you to listen.
  • Your child can be respectful and say what he needs.
  • You don't have to grab the "hook".
  • Your child's drive to learn how to get and use power need not be a threat to your authority as a parent.
  • Being able to clearly and respectfully communicate one's feelings fosters healthy relationships.

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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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