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5 Ways to Raise a Kid Who Speaks Up

Photograph by Twenty20

If there is one question I get over and over again, it's this: "How can I teach my kid to be more assertive?"

This is a common concern for parents of young children. Speaking up is no easy task. While some kids seem to enter this world with loud voices and a willingness to speak up, others need time and practice. It's a tricky balance, that's for sure. I would know.

I have one of each.

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I spend a fair amount of time empowering my daughter to speak her mind while trying to dull her brother's impulse to speak for her. This can be a difficult task. He is naturally more assertive, and I certainly don't want to stunt that, but he does need to give her the time and space to assert her needs in a way that works for her.

Teaching assertiveness skills requires patience and frequent practice. There are things you can do at home to help your child to speak up. Check out these tips straight from my new book, "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World."

1. Craft a bill of rights

As parents, we spend a lot of time teaching kids how to be responsible. We set rules and limits. We create expectations. We tell them where they have to be, what they have to do and, sometimes, even what they must wear. When you stop and think about it, that doesn't leave a lot of room for kids to assert their wants and needs.

Kids respond well to visuals, and they respond even better when they get to create the visuals. Help your child create an assertiveness bill of rights. It might include things like: I have the right to say "no," I have the right to disagree, I have the right to feel or express anger, or I have the right to recognize my needs as important. Teaching assertiveness skills can be tricky at times, and it is important to help your child balance her own needs with the needs of others. Part of assertive communication is listening to others and finding the middle ground. Be sure to let your child come up with as many rights as possible, as this is a great first step toward becoming more assertive.

A pretend sales pitch is a great way to practice assertive communication, and kids have a lot of fun in the process.

2. Teach 'I' statements

It feels good to blame someone or something when you're stressed or angry. It might even feel good to lash out by way of a verbally aggressive statement ... for a minute. But the minute kids start blaming others for their feelings—personal power is lost. There is a significant difference between saying "I feel angry when you ignore me" and "You make me angry when you ignore me." When kids learn to spot the difference and take ownership of their feelings, it puts them in control.

Practice using "I" statements at home. Use them when you're frustrated or upset by something to model a calm way to assert your needs as a parent. When your kids see that "I" statements help you remain calm and focused while asserting your feelings and needs, they learn that they can do the same with peers. They learn to shift the feeling from overwhelmed and out of control to calm and solution-focused.

3. Body positioning

As parents, we are always teaching kids to listen. We teach them that eye contact shows attention. We teach them to stop what they're doing and keep their hands still to demonstrate good listening skills. But do we remember to teach them what assertiveness looks like?

An assertive communicator stands tall, maintains eye contact and speaks in a clear but firm voice. Where a passive communicator speaks quietly and has difficulty maintaining eye contact and an aggressive communicator is too loud and possibly in your face, an assertive communicator knows when to speak, when to listen and how to maintain a calm and clear voice tone.

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Show your kids examples of assertive communicators throughout history. If you're up for it, consider running a family election. Come up with some fun positions that need filling (ex: light monitor or grocery list maker) and have everyone write and deliver speeches to earn the positions. Make sure to cue the kids to use assertive body language and voice tone at the podium.

4. Sales pitch!

Selling a product is no easy task. I feel guilty every time I turn away a kid standing at my door trying to convince me to buy a magazine in support of the school band, because I know that it takes a lot of courage to go door-to-door selling those magazines. And I can always tell which kids have been prepped, which kids have self-confidence and which kids wish they could run away and hide.

A pretend sales pitch is a great way to practice assertive communication, and kids have a lot of fun in the process. Send your kids off in search of hidden treasures in their rooms and then have them prepare a sales pitch and attempt to sell you the product. Ask them follow up questions to keep them engaged and give them specific feedback on their pitches, including praise for assertive communication.

The important thing about praise is that it should have meaning.

5. Praise out loud

There is a significant amount of backlash about praise these days. Some feel that kids are coddled and receive too much praise, that less praise builds more character. Some lash out about participation trophies, as if cheap plastic awards are creating entitled children who don't understand the value of hard work. Please don't crawl into this rabbit hole of parental negativity. Praise can do a lot of good. And when things like participation trophies are awarded to children at the end of a season, children have a transitional object to remind them of a great season working toward a common goal with a group of friends. Is that really such a bad thing?

The important thing about praise is that it should have meaning. When you praise your child's efforts rather than the finished product, for example, you teach your child that the hard work put into the product is what matters most. When you praise your child's character for acts of kindness, you teach your child that kindness matters. Be specific with your praise. Try not to over-think how often you praise your kids, as everyone enjoys positive feedback at times. I know I always enjoy a pat on the back, don't you? Doesn't it make sense to pay it forward and give our children the same?

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Added bonus: When you praise your child's character to another adult within earshot of your child, your child will definitely take note. It's not about bragging about accomplishments to other parents, it's about sharing heartwarming moments in parenting. Those are the moments you want your child to internalize and return to at another time.

Excerpted from The Happy Kid Handbook by Katie Hurley with the permission of Tarcher Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2015 by Katie Hurley.

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