I often struggle to be direct, not saying what I really mean, and talking around what I’m asking for. It’s a bad habit because I know it sets a bad example to my kids. And that example matters if I want to raise kids that can try, fail, and feel confident trying again.
This is all top of mind for us at the moment because our older two children have moved on from being toddlers and are now able to talk with us about the things they want. It’s leading to a lot of conversations encouraging them to say what they’re really after. That doesn’t mean encouraging them to be demanding. Asking for what they want doesn’t mean encouraging them to say “Daddy, I want…”. (I find myself cringing when I hear kids say that to their parents). But there’s a difference between being direct and being demanding.
A kid might say “Dad, I’m thirsty.” Which sounds pretty innocuous. But if you’re immediate response is to go and get them a cup of water every time (because you know what they’re really saying), you miss out on the opportunity to encourage them to say what they really mean. It sounds like a small detail, but encouraging your kids to be direct even in those small details can help build habitual confidence, teaching them not to be afraid to say what they really mean.
It can become a bit of a reflex to interpret our kids needs and meet them before they’ve had the chance to really say what they mean. I’m sure that’s partly borne from the excitement that comes with your kids learning to speak. We get into the habit of interpreting what they’re saying as we see them wrestle with the language they need to express themselves. We’re quick to help them along, giving positive responses at the first hint of understanding. It absolutely has a place when they’re that age. It encourages toddlers to keep trying new words, knowing that they’ll be understood.
However, there comes a point where kids outgrow the need for that particular help from us as parents. The help they need can be less about finding the words and more about exercising the habit of saying what they mean. So my response in these situations is increasingly to try and pause, restrain from assuming I know how to ‘sort’ the thing they’re asking for, and instead probe for what they’re really asking for – “Are you trying to ask me for something?” Sometimes it requires me to give words to what they’re asking so they can repeat it back to me, but the net result is the same in that they recognise that I’m looking for them to trust me with how they really feel or what they really would like.
Why does any of this matter? Well, there are three powerful opportunities for raising confident kids that come from encouraging them to be direct and say what they mean.
Firstly, each time I remind my kids to ask a question directly it’s an opportunity to tell them that I love them. There is a boldness that comes with knowing you’re loved, safe and protected. As we wrote here, these roots of unconditional love build confidence. So teaching them that they can be direct, is a reminder that I won’t be offended, I won’t love them less, and that they have nothing to hide in testing things out with me.
Second, as they grow up I want them to feel confident that they can be honest with me about how they’re feeling and what they’re facing. That means exercising honesty from a young age. Like all good exercise, or habit building generally, that means starting small and building incrementally day-in-day out. I wrote here that honesty is integral to our kids being confident, so encouraging them to be honest in asking a simple question “Daddy, I’d like to watch some TV.” rather than “Daddy, I’m bored.” is a great way to get them exercising that honesty. If they can be honest with a little, they’ll learn to be honest with a lot.
Third, I want my kids to know that hearing ‘no’ doesn’t cost them anything. This is the key point. The idea that underpins our desire at GRASP: to encourage kids to grow in confidence by trying things for themselves.
As parents, we can easily fall into the trap of trying to protect our kids from the word ‘no’. We want to build their self-esteem and make them feel they can conquer anything. Praise is such an important way we build up our kids and it’s right that we always be looking to give our kids positive feedback. None of this implies that we want to be saying ‘no’ to our kids all the time.
But positive feedback and encouragement should not be the basis of their confidence. If that’s our approach, we can end up creating a very fragile illusion of confidence in our kids. Confidence derived from self-esteem is a confidence built separate from reality. That kind of confidence won’t equip our kids to face down rejection and learn to pick themselves up.
What’s that got to do with teaching your kids to be direct? The answer lies in why we avoid asking for things outright ourselves as adults. Typically, it’s because we don’t want to be told ‘no’. We trick ourselves into thinking that we can’t be hurt if we never really ask for what we want. Asking indirect questions, or talking around what you really want is the defence mechanism we use to try and protect ourselves from the pain of being rejected. The pain of hearing that word ‘no!’.
Yet, we know that we’ll never learn if we don’t try, and trying inevitably comes with failure. Trying new things or asking for new opportunities always comes with a healthy amount of ‘no’ before you make progress. In order to get good at trying then, we have to get good at handling things not going our own way. Getting good at being direct from a young age means helping your kids get good at trying, and learning to handle themselves and others when they don’t get what they want. I want my kids to be comfortable hearing that word ‘no’, being okay with it and learning how to move on without it diminishing their confidence. That will only happen though, if they’re well practiced in doing just that. If they never have to be direct and receive a direct ‘no’ in response, they’ll never get comfortable with it.
It’s tough to read this back because I know it’s something I struggle with myself, but that’s exactly why I want my kids to learn to get this right. Getting your kids to ask for what they really want sounds unnecessarily tough and pernickety. But I think in small details like this we have the perfect opportunity to train our kids to face the world full of confidence.