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August 4th, 2020

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There's no 'I' in team, but we still need to teach kids how to advocate for themselves

Randi Mazzella

By Randi Mazzella The Washington Post

Published Feb. 10, 2020

There's no 'I' in team, but we still need to teach kids how to advocate for themselves
When my daughter made the high school basketball team, she was elated. But as the season progressed, her enthusiasm waned because of her lack of playing time. She was a good player and teammate, so she didn't understand why she didn't see more minutes on the court.

At first, I told her to keep working hard in practice and that the coach would take notice. But when that didn't happen, I suggested she meet with her coach. I explained that I thought it would show that she was committed to improving her game and he might offer her concrete suggestions on how to improve, possibly translating to more time on the court.

My daughter strongly disagreed with my suggestion, saying that the coach knew she wanted to play more, as did every other player sitting on the bench. She pointed out that I'd always told her "There is no 'I' in team," and that she shouldn't whine or be a squeaky wheel.

She's right. I do stress the importance of teamwork. I've told my kids not to whine or complain when they didn't get their way. But in my effort to raise my children to be polite, grateful and cooperative, did I inadvertently teach them to be complacent? Had I taught my kids that it was "squeaky" rather than "strong" to speak up for yourself?

Aggressive vs. assertive

"You get what you get and you don't get upset" is a phrase parents use a lot when kids are young. It helps minimize chaos when handing out assorted flavors of ice pops, magic marker colors and more. The idea is to teach children gratitude and appreciation for what they receive.

But this premise can be misconstrued, and it's not always bad to speak up for what you want or need, says Michele Borba, author of "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World." "There is nothing wrong with self-advocacy," she says. "If there is a chance that you could be happier with a different flavor ice pop, why shouldn't you take it?"

It's essential, though, for parents to teach their kids how to self-advocate and be assertive without being aggressive. "Assertiveness means being able to speak up in a way that is respectful of the self and others. Being passive, or not speaking up at all, is disrespectful of the self," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of "Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem." "Being aggressive, by harshly demanding, threatening, entitled or acting obnoxious, is disrespectful of others."

Is it worth speaking up?

Speaking up isn't always the right thing to do, Kennedy-Moore says, and kids need to be taught how to determine when it's appropriate. "Kids need to understand that they are not the center of the universe. Sometimes their wishes are not the most important consideration," she says. "In a particular situation, what they want may not be possible, may inconvenience others, or may be less compelling than someone else's need or the needs of the group."

If your child is upset, assess the situation and ask why they are unhappy. Sometimes the answer is simple. In the ice pop example, it may be that they don't like lime. If so, tell them that next time it is OK to ask for a different flavor politely. If a child is upset about a grade, they could meet with the teacher. They can't go to the teacher and insist they get a higher grade, but they can advocate in other ways. The teacher might be willing to give them an extra credit assignment or suggest a new study technique for the next test. But if a child auditions for the school play and gets cast in the ensemble, they shouldn't ask for a different part. Instead, they should commit to the role they received.

As for my daughter, I explained to her that she could be both a "team player" and advocate for herself. Speaking to the coach could help her and the team as a whole, but experts say how you word it matters. "'Why aren't you playing me?!' isn't a team-oriented comment," Kennedy-Moore says. "But saying to a coach, 'I think I could contribute' or asking, 'What do I need to do to improve so I can play that role?' shows a willingness to work hard, not just for oneself, but also for the good of the team."

A critical mistake parents make is advocating on behalf of their child, rather than allowing the child to speak up. Parents may feel it's their responsibility to step in and help, especially if their child is shy or has trouble expressing themselves. But Borba says doing that can rob kids of valuable lessons in self-advocacy, and doesn't help them build their confidence. She says children as young as 3 years old can learn to speak up for themselves if they are given a safe and trusting place to develop these skills.


Teaching your child how to advocate effectively

The best way for children to learn self-advocacy is to role-play. Teach them to try to get inside the head of the person with authority. Are they receptive? Some are very open to speaking with kids, while others are less approachable. It's important to know your audience and understand their point of view. "Empathy is our best tool," Borba says. "Step back and look at the situation from the teacher or coach's point of view."

If the person is receptive, set up a good time to meet. Come to the meeting prepared and with a list of talking points. To help children to communicate effectively, try Borba's acronym CALM:

Cool. Remain cool and speak calmly. Don't get upset or rattled.

Assert yourself. Use a strong voice, but don't be rude or scream.

Look the person in the eye. Stand tall, with good posture. If you look down, you don't appear confident.

Make like you mean it. If you don't believe you deserve it, neither will the person you are addressing.

Parents can also teach self-advocacy by setting a good example. Suppose you are in a restaurant and your meal is incorrect. Are you rude to the waiter, do you say nothing and just not eat, or do you politely ask for the correct dish? Kids emulate their parents' behavior, so it is critical to be a positive role model.

Finally, it's important to teach kids that even the most effective advocating does not always yield the desired result. In the case of the ice pops, even if you ask politely, there may not be enough cherry in the box for everyone. It's hard to speak up, though, so praise children for their effort, regardless of the outcome. The key to becoming proficient at self-advocacy is practice, Borba says. Even if it doesn't work out in one situation, it might the next time.

In the end, my daughter chose not to talk to the coach. While I don't think she would have gotten more playing time, I do think she would have gained confidence and improved her communication skills if she had taken the risk.

Now a college senior, she still finds self-advocacy difficult. But she realizes she needs to be assertive as she begins searching for postgraduate employment. Hard work and a positive attitude are important but so is being able to speak up for yourself.

By helping our children learn how to do that from a young age, we can give them a better chance to achieve their future goals.

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