90's FAMILY : Stand and Deliver : Teaching children to be assertive will help them go a long way. But to teach, you've got to be a model.


They are seen but not heard--the legions of men, women and children of all backgrounds and ages who can't or won't ask for directions, return items to a store or call a customer service line, even anonymously. They fear the mere thought of speaking up.

Experts say this fear can have serious, debilitating implications throughout a person's life. But that fear can be conquered, particularly if the person begins at a young age.

"Public speaking, the ability to speak up, is life," said Alan Friedenberg, principal of University Elementary School in Thousand Oaks, who has a program for even the kindergarten children to speak in class. "It's the job interview, asking for a date, wanting to borrow the car. You must sell yourself to people in life. Why not start at 5 or 6 to build on it?"

Friedenberg said that when he was working on his MBA, after receiving a master's in education, he saw that many bright students couldn't deal with the public. This prompted him to write books on public speaking for children, which are used nationwide. He also conducts workshops for teachers and parents in several Western states.

A public speaking contest for fifth-graders in the Conejo Valley Unified School District evolved from Friedenberg's workshops for teachers. Students in all grades also do newscasts, portray famous people and perform in plays.

He tells students to do their speech with just a friend or two at first to get over the fear. "I've never had a child who couldn't do it by the end of the year," he said.

"Many people are unaware they need assertiveness training," said Los Angeles psychologist Manuel Smith, whose book, "When I Say No I Feel Guilty" (Dial, 1975) was a bestseller. The concepts from his book are taught in schools in many states and in at least 50 school districts in California.

"The ability to speak up has to start at 8 or 9. It can't start at 18," Smith said, stressing that the skills must be learned. "The definition of being assertive means you don't ask for permission. You become the authority on what you do.

"People shouldn't ask, they should tell," he said. "If you go to a store to return sunglasses, don't go in and say, 'Can I return these sunglasses?' You're giving the clerk a wrong message, like he's supposed to make up his mind whether you can return them or not. You say, 'I want to return these sunglasses.' Big difference."

Smith said children have to be taught assertiveness techniques: "To be persistent, to not be overly sensitive to criticism and not be overly sensitive to making mistakes. Now if a parent can do that, these three things will go a long way to making the child assertive and comfortable in almost any situation and stand up and say, 'This is what I want.' "

But he said parents can't do this by just telling the child from a young age. "They can model it," he said. "If they behave that way, the kids are automatically going to behave that way. If they behave like a mouse, the kids are going to behave like a mouse. There isn't much chance for these children unless they get connected with a program that teaches assertiveness. So the parents have a choice."

It can begin at birth. Dr. Rocco Motto, a psychiatrist and dean of the Graduate Center for Child Development and Psychotherapy in Los Angeles, said even the cooing and bubbling sounds that come from the mother or caretaker are very important to the newborn. "They become very imitative. If they grow up with sparse speech around them, they have had no role model who speaks up or speaks out."


The Irvine Unified School District provides assertiveness training to middle-school students through its Social Thinking and Reasoning, or STAR, program, which is based on Smith's book.

"Some people think to be assertive is to be aggressive. It's not. It's to be able to express your needs without trampling on the needs of somebody else," said Nancy Colocino, coordinator of guidance resources for the district.

"Probably the most critical thing parents can teach their children to act assertively is to teach them to make an 'I' statement," said Christine Honeyman, an educational consultant and co-author of Irvine's STAR program. "When kids in a family get in a fight, they tend to deflect the blame and say 'He or she did that.' Say, 'I'm really interested in what you have to say and I want you to start every sentence with an 'I.' "

She said that when children have to start from the point of "I," they have to start taking responsibility.

"We find many children, especially girls, start shutting down and stop speaking up for themselves right around (6th to 8th grade). Their self-esteem goes down after age 12," she said. But she has taught the material to second-graders and uses puppets to show passive, aggressive and assertive behavior to kindergartners.

"These skills must be taught. They are not natural," she said. "We're in such close quarters today in school, home and work that communication is vital. You have to teach your kids these skills so they can survive."


In a class project, Honeyman had the kids pay attention to their last experience in the community, then look up the address and president of the company involved. Then they had to write an assertive letter about whether they liked the service or whether there was difficulty, closing with a paragraph of either appreciation or what they thought would be helpful to change.

"The response was amazing," Honeyman said. "We had a whole board covered with food coupons. One boy decided he wanted to do this as a life career. Another child was invited to speak at a board meeting."

In the midst of another class project, Honeyman received a call from the manager of a local fast-food outlet. She asked if the kids were acting inappropriately and was told: "Oh no, but we are having to prepare everything perfectly."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World