Everyone loves polite, well behaved children. Children who listen, follow adults' direction, behave well in class, always get along with peers and don't fight. These kids are convenient and are the desired product of effective parenting. Moreover, these kids appear content most of the time.
But the key word unfortunately is "appear". Because inevitably at some point in their lives, this complacent and obedient nature of theirs can become a breeding ground for many problems. It might happen as early as during the elementary years but often is discovered much later in life, when they won’t have supportive adults who can help and direct them, and most importantly, when many personality traits are so well integrated within their character that change becomes very difficult or perhaps even impossible. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could notice the first signs and steer our children in the right direction, towards greater self-assurance, higher self-esteem, and independence? We could then teach them that being nice is important but taking care of your own needs should become their top priority at times.
For those of us who struggle with saying no firmly, without apologizing or tracking back, who always want to appease others but end up feeling frustrated, being taken advantage of, this issue might greatly resonate. You might have even recognized yourself in this description of the “convenient child”. By teaching our children from very early on to “be nice”, to get along with others, to give in to others’ requests, we are contributing to their internal discomfort in situations which call for refusal of a request. This is of course not to say that we should not be teaching our kids to be polite. This is a skill that will serve them well throughout life and make relationships with others more pleasant. Yet, there is a difference between teaching your kids to use “thank you” and “please”, to give up their seat on a public transport to an elderly person, or to not interrupt others’ conversations. It is when you demand that your older child give her favorite doll to another girl on the playground “because we share”, even though she strongly objects, that you are sending the message “you always need to placate others, even when it makes you upset”. In this instance, it is OK to say: “I see that you want to continue playing with your doll. You can tell her that you do not want to share it”. Show your child that it is ok to follow her wishes and she doesn’t have to feel bad about it. Sharing in general is a learned social skill and since it goes against our instincts, it will take time and effort to develop it. But by forcing your child to share, you are in fact teaching her that others’ feelings are always are superior to her own.
The ability to honor our own wishes and follow our desires, should be a part of person’s repertoire of choices in any given situation. This is not to say that you should direct your children always to demand their heart desires to be fulfilled. This is the definition of a rude individual, one who always tries to get their own way, with no consideration to the feelings of others. Instead, it is better to alert your child to other people’s feelings in any given situation and then offer her the choice of behavior, without pushing in either direction. If we will go back to the same example of sharing a toy: Your child objects to their younger sibling trying to snatch the doll away from her and protest by screaming at her sister. You can come in and help her verbalize the situation and her feelings: "I see that your sister also wants to play with your favorite doll, but you are not ready to share it and are very upset with her". Then, redirect her to focus on the other’s feelings and motives, and offer a solution: “It looks like she would like to be just like you and play with this doll. She looks very sad that she can’t get a turn. It is OK to tell her no right now, but you don’t have to scream at her because it probably scares her. How about if I help you and distract her with another toy and then later when you maybe will want to play with her, you can let her have a turn with the doll?”
By guiding your child through this situation and alerting her to the other person’s perspective without forcing her to give up on her toy, thus trumping her own wishes, you are teaching her that her wants are also important and are to be respected. In other words, you are raising a child who will not only be polite to others but will respect herself. This is one of the most important building blocks of a healthy self-esteem, but even more significant, this ability to say no firmly but politely will serve as a protective factor in your child’s life. When she will face situations with adults or peers in which someone will ask her to do something she is not comfortable with, she will be able to refuse and will do so without feeling guilt or remorse. Moreover, the ability to say no firmly is one of the most important elements in creating healthy personal boundaries. By teaching our children how to refuse firmly, without the need of justifying their choice, we are empowering them and straightening their sense of self-value.
It will not a one-time solution and if your child is older, she might resist this powerful lesson: “But mom, if I say no, she will be upset with me and won’t be my friend anymore!” It is especially important to reinforce the understanding that people who are genuine and truly care for her, will respect her wishes and won’t see an insult in her occasional refusal. However, it the other person does not accept her refusal or becomes upset with her, it should be a warning sign that perhaps this individual is not being respectful or understanding. In that case, staying firm becomes even more important, to guard her feelings from being hurt. Teach her that pleasing everyone, will not make her happy, nor will it bring her the gratitude or acceptance she undoubtedly seeks. Instead, remind her that people who are respected and loved by others, always respect, and love themselves too.
Instead of raising a “convenient child", raise a child who is polite but self-aware and can express and stand up for their wishes.