Before Shelli Stanley’s son started middle school, she wanted to make sure he knew one thing: how to advocate for himself.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, he would need to explain himself to peers and ask teachers for a few minutes break when he needed it.
The ability to advocate for yourself, however, is a skill that all kids need — not just those with special needs. Experts agree that teaching children to be more self-sufficient is more important than ever in the era of helicopter parenting. Colleges often report students flounder and have a harder time adjusting when they can’t rely on parents to solve problems.
“It’s teaching them to be problem-solvers,” says Andrea Beckman, a counselor at Annapolis Elementary School. “If adults are always jumping in, they don’t have the opportunity to learn that.”
Parents teach their kids everything from how to hold a spoon to how to drive a car, but encouraging them to stand up for themselves is one of the most important skills of all, experts say.
Stanely’s son not only learned to advocate for himself, he also gained confidence in the process, says Stanley, a mother of two from Gambrills.
“I heard that he’s become a frequent contributor in class… I think it helped,” she says.
Learning to self-advocate is a process, to be sure, beginning in preschool when kids must raise their hand for permission to use the bathroom. And it continues through elementary school when they might need to report bullying, or in middle and high school when they may need to ask a teacher for extra help after class.
“It’s important to teach advocacy skills early because you need to have them in life,” says Alison Bomba, a licensed psychologist who practices in Frederick and the Family Center in Ellicott City. “It’s also empowering for them.”
But it can be hard for parents, because it sometimes goes against a parent’s protective instincts. If there’s a problem, the natural tendency is to intervene.
“While it can be tough on parents, allowing a certain amount of failure gives students a chance to overcome and learn from their mistakes,” says Todd Stanzione, a counselor at Nantucket Elemetary in Crofton.
It’s also a safety issue, Stanzione says. “If they can describe what’s going on to a trusted adult, the solution will come quicker,” he says.
Of course, certain situations call for a parent’s help, whether it’s a call to the principal or even the police.
There are times when Renee Gaboury, a mother of one from Piney Orchard, has taken her daughter and another child by the hand to have a talk with another parent about an incident. But she’s tried hard to teach her 9-year-old to stand up for herself and her friends.
“I’m not always going to be there,” Gaboury says.
Stanley says her daughter recently was involved in a social situation where one of her friends was being unkind to another, so she made the decision to leave a playdate early.
“I’m trying to teach [my kids] that in any situation, you should never be afraid to question, in a respectful way,” Stanley says. “We want our kids to be critical thinkers…. We want them to be kind, but also firm.”
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