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I have a clear memory of taking my daughter to one of her well-toddler visits at the doctor’s office.
During a routine check-in about developmental milestones, the pediatrician asked me how many words my daughter knew.“I think she knows around 150 words,” I said proudly.
The doctor shot me a questioning look. It was only then that I realized she hadn’t made a peep the whole time — I had been doing all the talking. I felt like the mom of Michigan J. Frog, the Looney Tunes character who sang only when no one was watching.
Not that a toddler should be expected to carry on long conversations at the pediatrician’s office, but my tendency to speak up for my daughter has extended into her elementary school years. And while I think I’m helping — making doctor’s appointments go more smoothly, for example, or telling a server her order at a restaurant for efficiency’s sake — I could be hurting her in the long run.
By speaking for my daughter, I'm not letting her build her self-confidence.
When I give the whole family’s order at a restaurant, what I’m really doing is robbing my daughter of the opportunity to practice speaking up for herself in a controlled, safe way, and that has a ripple effect. “Self-advocacy and self-confidence are actually very complementary,” says Jenn Curtis, M.S.W., owner of educational consulting firm FutureWise Consulting and co-author of the best-selling The Parent Compass. “The more opportunities kids have to speak for themselves and voice their opinions, the more they feel empowered. Their confidence grows, and they’re likely to speak up for themselves in other situations.”
Curtis says she started in restaurants with her own family. “I felt that was the easiest, most benign place where they could get a lot of practice,” she says. “My kids knew that when it was time to order, they had to look the server in the eye and tell them what they wanted to eat. They also knew that if they wanted a coloring page and crayons, they needed to ask for the coloring page and the crayons.”
The doctor’s office, where I was forced to recognize my own pushiness, is also a great place to practice self-advocacy. When kids go in for a visit, they should get the first crack at describing their symptoms and answering questions. Parents can fill in some of the details afterward if there’s anything their child has missed. When they reach high school, teens can be in charge of scheduling their own appointments, too.
If kids are having problems in school, see if they can address it with their teachers directly — having these interactions will serve them well overall later on. “I’ve done interviews with college professors and deans, and more and more they’re talking about how kids are coming to college unprepared for the college environment, especially when students need to advocate for themselves,” Curtis says.
Shyness is understandable at first, but there are ways parents can help.
My fear, of course, is that I’ll urge my daughter to tell a server what she wants to eat and be met with a silent stare. In such a case, I worry that I’ll be faced with two bad options: Sit there quietly and become the biggest pain-in-the-neck customer of the day, or revert to my old helicopter-parent ways and just give the order myself.
Curtis says practicing a few times at home first is the way to avoid that stressful scenario altogether. “Role-playing is really powerful,” she says.“It gives kids the tools, and sometimes the actual words to use, when they’re in a help-seeking situation.”
For kids who are dealing with problems that are more complex, role-playing still helps — as does brainstorming and goal-setting. Sometimes it’s just a matter of helping them figure out what they ultimately want; if you assist them with that, they can figure out a path toward getting it.
It’s going to take a while for me to get there with my daughter. For one thing, we haven’t been going to restaurants because of the pandemic — and she hasn’t had that many doctor visits, either (thank you, masks). So I still see some uncomfortable silences in our future. But I did recently give her cash and let her go into a store by herself to buy a book she wanted while I waited outside. She told me afterward that she resisted the urge to get Pokémon cards instead, but if she had pulled the bait-and-switch, I would’ve grudgingly accepted it as a demonstration of her self-advocacy. (Nobody tell her that.)
While I waited outside the store, I was nervous, but also buoyed by a sense of purpose and the hope of an eventual payoff. “I had a student years ago whom I just really respected,” Curtis says.“She had it all together. She was poised; she was confident. I asked her what her parents had done right, because I’m always trying to pick up parenting tips for myself. And, without skipping a beat, she looked at me and said, ‘They made me do hard things.’”
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