Tips to Being an Assertive Parent


Does passive behavior ever get in the way of you being a good parent?

A few years back, when I was a less experienced mother and a more passive friend, my family and I were invited to a Superbowl party at the home of one of my older daughter’s pre-school friends. The school year was in full-swing, but the friendship between the three-year old girls was just beginning and the invitation was an especially exciting one for my daughter. When we arrived at the party, spinach-and-artichoke-bread-bowl in hand, my daughter’s classmate, Haley, greeted her with a warm embrace and a sweet kiss. They grabbed hands and skipped away and I thought, “Oh, how nice that they are so close.”

Ten minutes  later, when the two girls frolicked back into the living room still holding hands, I couldn’t help but notice a spotty red rash that extended from Haley’s neck, all the way up the side of her face. As I bounced my 12-month old younger daughter on my lap, I said to Haley’s mom with concern, “Have you seen Haley’s neck? It looks like she might have some sort of rash.”

“She has Scarletina” the mom explained, matter-of-factly.

“Scarletina?”  I asked, with a surge of confusion. Oh, I knew what Scarletina was—a rash that sometimes accompanies the strep virus in children. A pretty name for Scarlet Fever. My confusion stemmed from what on earth we were doing at a Superbowl party with a child with a raging case of strep.

“Yeah, we took her to the doctor this morning. Don’t worry, though. She’s on antibiotics.”

I’m no doctor, but I knew at that moment that a girl diagnosed with strep in the morning is not a girl who is germ-free by evening. I am ashamed to say that I froze and made what I consider a bad decision to stay.

I have looked back on that event for four solid years now, thinking about how un-assertive I was to have not been able to find the words to excuse my family politely and prioritize my daughters’ health and well-being. As I have developed better skills for asserting the needs and rights of my family members, I know that upon first noticing the rash, I should have said something along the lines of, “Oh, I wish you would have told me ahead of time. We won’t be able to stay. I can’t risk the baby getting strep. We would love to re-schedule something for another time when everyone is feeling better.”

All’s well that ends well, though, right? My kids stayed healthy and I learned a valuable lesson: putting your family's needs first requires assertive behavior. But how can you, as a parent, be more assertive, while at the same time being considerate? Let me illustrate.

Tips to Becoming a More Assertive Parent

Last Friday, a neighbor with three children invited our family over for a Pizza Night, this coming Friday. We accepted the invitation.

On Monday, she mentioned that her oldest child was up all night with a stomach virus. This morning, she texted me that her middle daughter was also sick. With flashbacks of the Superbowl-playdate in my head, I e-mailed back my sympathy and concern, along with an offer to bring over ginger ale or to run to the store for crackers or chicken soup. I also practiced my best assertiveness skills, by writing the following:

Let’s plan to postpone the Pizza Night. I don’t want you to have to think about having people over when you have sick kids and I am nervous about my girls catching the stomach bug. We’ll look forward to doing it another time or to having you to our house after the holidays.

Good, right?  It only took me four years, but I thought I had finally redeemed myself. An hour later, two days before the scheduled Pizza Night, my neighbor e-mailed back to report that her third child had just gotten sick but still wanted to keep the Friday date.

Okay, I thought, so maybe she didn’t get the meaning in my message. Perhaps I was not clear enough. Let me try this again. Afterall, assertiveness is all about stating your rights and needs directly and even repeatedly, when necessary. This must be one of those “necessary” times. I wrote back:

I hope everyone recovers quickly. It’s no fun to be sick—poor kids! My husband and I would feel much better about postponing. Friday is coming up soon and the holidays are right after that. We don’t want to take the chance of the kids being sick at Christmas.

Can’t argue with that, right? Non-offensive. Clear. Direct. I sincerely thought my assertive job was done.

But she quickly wrote back about changing the date from Saturday to Sunday for dinner, claiming she didn't think her kids would still be contagious by then.

I was beginning to feel like I’m being bullied into this Pizza Night. I started to think that not sticking up for my family’s health at that Superbowl-playdate really was the easier way. But I was knee-deep now and I know that if I acquiesced, I was going to spend the next two days feeling resentful and pushed-around—not to mention unnecessarily subjecting my kids to gross vomit germs! I e-mailed what I hope will be my final assertive refusal of her request:

I am so glad everyone is on the mend! So much better to be at the clean-up stage than still in the sick stage! My husband and I have talked quite a bit about coming to your house and have decided that it is very important not to be making a long holiday car trip with sick children or, worse yet, bringing a virus to his 85 year old parents. We are not going to be able to bring the kids over for a dinner playdate before our trip.

It’s been three hours and I have not heard a response.

I did tell my husband, though, that I think I understand now why naturally assertive people seem so happy. Having to be a broken record today has been slightly annoying, but on the whole, I feel practically giddy about having stood up for my family’s right not to spend a Pizza Night in StomachVirus-ville. I am not responsible for the perishable items that were purchased (as my husband pointed out, we thought it was supposed to be Pizza Night!!) and I have been honest, clear, and direct. Instead of feeling guilted into the invitation or resentful about accepting it, I was able to stand firm on our rights to postpone the get-together.

Only time will tell what my neighbor’s next e-mail will say, but my conscience is clear in terms of the decision I have made for my own family’s health and the honest way in which I expressed myself. I do look forward to a Pizza Night with our friends another day and hope that our friendship can withstand the forthright honesty that it took me four years to muster.

What do you do to be more of an assertive, and less passive, parent?

Words of wisdom from Signe Whitson, LSW. She has been child and family therapist for over ten years, which has afforded her many opportunities to champion constructive solutions to everyday situations. Her blog shares many funny encounters of passive aggressive behavior in our lives, additionally she has co-authored the book, "The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces." Her advice is brought to you by My Baby Clothes Boutique—the home of adorable baby tutus with matching baby headbands made especially for your little angels.
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