Appropriate Assertiveness

Q: When my teenage children come to me with questions about how much they should “push their agenda” when it comes to issues with friends and teachers, I have mixed feelings. On one hand they should learn to be sameiach b’chelko — happy with their lot — and accept that hashgachah pratis determines what they receive in life (such as parts in school plays, available slots in summer camps, marks, punishments, etc.). On the other hand, I can become very assertive about my children’s rights in some situations. I guess there is a part of me that wonders how my life would have been had I been more assertive while growing up.

What is a good way to answer children when they ask you how much to “push” to get what they want?

 A: Unfortunately, there is not one definitive answer to such a question; negotiating our way through our daily reality is truly an art rather than a science.

Though society claims that more assertive individuals come out on top, there is a difference between those who are diplomatic, and those who are brazen in their attempts to achieve their desired ends. Though one may think that by being pushy they will achieve the desired results, such behavior eventually causes others to mistrust their motives, and the gains achieved are often short-lived.

Nevertheless, examples abound of people who have ruthlessly achieved power and hung on to it for long periods of time. But how did it affect their inner state of being? Can they truly have peace of mind when their entire ethical sense is unsteady? Can they feel confident in their abilities when they know that much of their gains were attained through manipulation and aggression, causing them to constantly have to watch their backs, always distrusting others? The process by which individuals make decisions reflects their true self-worth.

On a practical level, one needs to stand up for oneself. However, a person always needs to weigh the possible gains and losses before confronting others, and explore the various options available on how to achieve desired results. A useful tactic is sandwiching the demand in between layers of appreciation and understanding to soften the impact, thereby allowing the other party to accept the request or condition. If one truly is concerned about the well-being of the other, this sincerity is sensed, and both parties gain from the interaction.

Staying dignified, not losing  composure, and not indulging in excessive complaining should be of paramount importance. If one is overly whiny or critical, the other party often stops listening and focuses on the lack of self-control being exhibited instead of what is actually being said.

There are situations when one needs to deal with authority and may find it helpful to call upon a third party to assist them in promoting their goal. There are times when perseverance (such as making a daily phone call) is necessary, as some people only respond to persistence. However, it is the manner of expression that differentiates between being rude and aggressive versus dignified and determined.

There are times when a child (or an adult) is called upon to state his or her position in a very definitive way. This can occur when false accusations are being made about them or serious issues are being addressed. Yet even in such cases, one needs to present his/her case in a respectful attitude with self-confidence, rather than being defensive, in order to successfully resolve the issue.

A child needs to internalize the idea that one needs to strive for positive results, but that in the end, it’s all up to Hashem, who knows the best outcome of all interactions in our lives. In this way, a child can have the self-confidence to approach an issue, but not become defensive or angry when things do not turn out the way he/she desired.