Teaching our kids to self-advocate

Help them identify and ask for what they need
No matter the age, there are ways you can help kids develop this skill. Photo: spb2015

We teach our kids from an early age how to solve problems and resolve conflicts, but another important skill for them to learn is how to advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy is defined as being able to identify and ask for what you need to thrive. This can be taught early on and developed as children grow older. In my experience, however, this is happening less and less, and we parents have only ourselves to blame. It is hard to see our kids struggle and to resist the temptation to jump in and help solve their problem. But by doing this we are doing them a disservice, because we aren’t allowing them to build the skills to figure it out on their own. Teaching our kids how to advocate for themselves makes them more independent, confident, and self-aware adults. No matter the age or stage of your child, there are ways you can help them develop this skill. 

Early Years

By the time most kids are in preschool or kindergarten, they love being able to do things by themselves. This could be getting dressed, tying their shoes, or helping, which is why this is a great age to introduce small chores around the house. Allowing them to do things builds their self-confidence. 

This is also a great time for parents to practice patience. Sometimes having our kids help with the task can take twice as long and be twice as messy, not to mention frustrating, but we can practice not swooping in to save it or clean it or do it our way. Self-confidence will help them be better self-advocates, and they can do this by starting with simple tasks. My son has a severe nut allergy, so we encouraged him from a young age to order for himself at restaurants and to make that known. We figured teaching him to do this from a young age would make it routine by the time he was eating out when we weren’t there. 

Middle School

This can be a tricky time for many kids and often there can be friend drama. Depending on the situation, we want to encourage them to “talk it out” and try to resolve the issue. To give them the tools to be able to do this, they have to understand how to articulate their feelings and ask for what they need. If a friend did something to hurt their feelings, they need to be able to tell them that and ask for what they need, which in this case might be to not do that again or to apologize. Parents, instead of getting involved and talking to the child themselves or the child’s parents, can help role play the conversation with their own child so they feel confident in how they will handle it on their own. 

In our house, it is common to spend two seconds looking for something and then call for my help, or if I ask them to run into a store to buy something for me and they can’t find it, they call me to tell me they can’t find it. This can be super frustrating for us but instead of swooping in and finding it, I try to take a deep breath and ask them to go back again and retrace their steps or ask a store employee for help finding something. This isn’t always the quickest solution, but it does help them develop problem-solving skills that make self-advocacy easier in the real world.  

High School

By high school, kids are craving independence, and just by virtue of school and after-school sports and activities they are physically around us much less; however, they still need our help. It might be crafting an email to a teacher requesting a meeting for extra help, and kids should be able to recognize what their needs are and how or whom to reach out to. This is also true with coaches. My son’s freshman coach made it clear from the start that he did not want to hear from parents. If our son had a question, concern, schedule conflict, or injury, he wanted to hear from the boys first. 

Also, at medical appointments, make sure they are explaining why they are there and are answering questions themselves and not looking to you to do that for them. Learning how to communicate with teachers, coaches, or doctors not only helps kids build confidence but it can prepare them for future endeavors such as interviewing for a job. 

How will we ever enact change or get what we want if we don’t ask for it? The earlier our kids can learn to self-advocate the better off they will be in life. 

Liz Farrell is the mother of three children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]

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