8 Ways to Help Kids Find Their Voices (& Get Out of Their Way)

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As parents, we often jump in and speak for our children. We do this because we mean well and want to protect them. And so, we step in and handle things for them in a lot of little ways every day. This doesn’t do kids any favors. In fact, it could be holding them back.

Parents think they’re doing the right thing by sweeping in and taking charge, but in truth we are robbing them by rescuing them. Each time we helicopter, solve their problems, and speak up in their place, we take away some of our children’s power to figure things out on their own. We’re doing this in part to calm our own nervousness and worries about wanting them to succeed, but in the end it prevents our children from gaining confidence and learning to stand up for themselves.

Overprotection is a toxic recipe for curiosity and thriving. It increases kids’ fragility, dependence, stress, and risk aversion, reduces resilience, kills creativity, and expands emptiness. “Agency” is a strong commonality of thrivers.

Further, if you’re always speaking for your kids, they will grow to depend on you and will not develop the self-confidence they need. (And this is one of the reasons so many kids today are struggling to cope with life’s curveballs). But when you get out of their way, kids don’t have to turn to you for every problem. They develop an awareness of their own strength and can say “I got this” (and really mean it). In other words, they become Thrivers.

Thrivers is my term for mentally tough children that have a sense of control over their lives and flourish in a rapidly changing world. They find their own voice and learn to say, “I got this” when they face challenges, and they have developed the seven essential character strengths that build resilience. (You can read more about Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine).

A Few Tips to Help Your Kids Start Speaking Up:

Start noticing when you’re doing all the talking. Yes, you may mean well, but this prevents your child from thinking for himself or herself. You may be even more likely to “rescue” your child if he or she is shy. When kids are quiet, shy, or appear to be stymied, it can feel natural to jump right in and speak for them. Resist this urge and soon your child will realize that you expect them to come up with their own responses, even if it takes a while.

Make your child start speaking for himself or herself. Practice stepping back and waiting patiently for your child to answer when someone asks them a question, or while they figure out a solution to a problem they are presented with. Give them plenty of time to warm up and allow them the time and space to come through with their response. Take this approach even for little things—it’s the simple everyday experiences that will add up and teach them to manage their own voice.

Give them opportunities to speak out at home. Kids need practice in finding their voice and developing opinions so they can confidently voice their views. The Three A’s can help your child develop strong reasoning and ethical assertiveness:

  • Allow disagreement. The best place for kids to learn to speak up is at home, so hold family meetings to address anything from family concerns (allowances, chores) to world issues (poverty, bullying). Set clear rules: Everyone gets a turn and has equal airtime. Listen to each person’s full idea. No put-downs allowed. Encourage your child to express opinions and when disagreements come up, help them offer a strong “why.”

  • Ask questions. Use prompts to help kids think about moral issues and defend their views. Such as: Who do you admire? List three of that person’s admirable qualities. Or: Describe an incident or event from which you learned a lesson the hard way.

  • Assert your beliefs. Kids need our permission to speak up and recognize that we expect them to do the right thing. And we must teach kids that having integrity isn’t easy, standing up for moral beliefs is hard, and peer pressure is intense. Practice together until they can do so without guidance.

Get them comfortable with taking risks. Support your child by giving them permission to stray off course. Let them know they can be passionate about their original ideas and willing to defend them, even if it means deviating from the norm. Further, encourage them to stretch their comfort zones by encouraging them to take a few low risks: “Write down your thought first so you have courage to share it with the class.” “Tell your teacher your thought after class.”

Come up with a script and practice it until they are comfortable speaking for themselves. Sooner or later your child will need to talk one-on-one with a coach, a teacher, or a peer. This is a good time to help them plan what they would like to say and practice it ahead of time. Remind them, “Hey, you’ve got this. Let’s practice what you want to say together. Or, you can rehearse it in front of a mirror until you can do it on your own.”

Show them how to stand up for themselves. Emphasize that while you can’t control what another person says or does, you can control how you respond. So help your child learn to self-advocate by using the strategy CALM:

  • C: Chill. There are two quick ways to appear calmer and more confident: 1. Uncross your legs and arms; 2. Make your voice sound not too soft (meek) or harsh (angry).

  • A: Assert. Brainstorm a few assertive lines that your child can say in difficult situations like, “Not cool.” “Cut it out.” “I don’t want to!” Firm, short statements work best.

  • L: Look strong. Kids are taken less seriously if they look vulnerable so teach these assertive body language senders: Hold your head high and look eye to eye, pull your shoulders back, keep your arms at your sides, and keep your feet placed firmly on ground.

  • M: Mean it. Help your child practice assertive voice tone: It should be strong and firm, but not yelling or angry.

If you always defend your child, they won’t develop inner confidence and will rely on you. From this moment on, step back and help your child learn to speak for themself.

Make them practice every day. As a rule, encourage your kids to speak for themselves in age-appropriate ways every day. Coach younger children to raise their hand at least once a day to answer a question in class and to place their own food order at restaurants. Older kids can call to schedule their own doctor appointments or apply for summer jobs without your supervision.

Remind them (and yourself) that it’s okay if they struggle. Explain to your child that setbacks and mistakes are okay. If they mess up, encourage them to try again. Ultimately, these setbacks will help your child take a big step forward. And remember that as a parent, watching the struggle may be very difficult for you as well. Don’t rescue them.

Keep in mind that your goal is to prepare your kids to live without you some day. It’s never too early to start helping them build their independence. Give them plenty of encouragement and praise. Celebrate successes, however large or small. It’s not easy for children to push themselves outside of their comfort zones, so be sure to let them know they are doing a great job. This will encourage them to keep speaking up and increase their confidence.

We tend to put all our focus on big things but it’s all those little things that are a part of daily life that turn out to be so powerful. When kids learn to speak for themselves, they develop self-confidence from the inside out. And as one of the seven essential strengths that makes a Thriver, self-confidence is a superpower every child must develop.

Every parent wants their child to have a sense of purpose and meaning for their own life. By helping our kids speak for themselves, we are setting them up to follow their own path and live up to their real potential with confidence and joy and to thrive.

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. For more information, please visit https://www.micheleborba.com/.