I don’t know about you but I found the interaction between boys and girls pretty confusing when I was growing up. At my kindergarten the boys would chase me with stinging nettles and spiders and yet I was the one who got into trouble when I screamed. The teachers didn’t reprimand the boys for scaring me. This seemed thoroughly unfair and left me with a sense that they were more powerful than I was. I was relieved when I moved on to an all girls’ school. But did this then cocoon me in an unnatural world where I wasn’t learning how to manage the opposite sex? Or sex? I do remember being rather horrified when boys tried to touch me up at teenage parties and finding it tricky to balance being polite and considerate with being firm enough to say “no”.
In a week where we have learnt of the sexual abuse of boys by football coach Barry Bennell, it becomes clear that young children find it difficult to assert their rights, even when they know that what is being suggested is wrong. Yesterday morning on the Today programme Maria Miller, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, recounted that 2/3 of girls in school report being harassed sexually by their male peer groups, being called names such as slut or whore, being touched inappropriately and being rated for sex appeal. I feel lucky that didn’t happen at my school.
Ranulph Fiennes recently spoke very movingly about his own experience of being sexually harassed at school, which he writes about in his book Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge (Hodder & Stoughton). We need to help girls and boys find the language and behavioural skills to manage these bullying situations as today’s young people can suffer not only in the playground but also through social media, sexting, and at home. Mental illness among the young is increasing and incidents of bullying and harassment can lead to conditions such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and anorexia, so the more skills we give children to counteract these experiences the better for them, their families and also for the hard-pressed NHS.
It may seem strange but I didn’t realize until mid-life that I had as much right to my opinion and needs as the next person. I, like many girls, was brought up, both at home and in school, to be helpful, polite, accommodating. I am not alone. In my experience many people only learn about assertiveness skills and managing conflict when they are in their 30s or 40s and are sent on a training course at their place of work. But we need to be taught these behaviours earlier in life. Saying no is difficult in many different situations. I know many people who find it tricky to say no to a boss’s demands on a project at work. I knew girls who had sex with boys because they felt it too impolite to say no. They didn’t necessarily want to make love but felt that a rejection might be rude, uncool, or hurtful to the boy. Looking at the research on today’s teenagers it would appear that this still happens.
We are basically talking about power and how to enable children to feel powerful in themselves but not have to wield that power over others. It isn’t always easy to speak up for yourself, especially when the other person is older than you or in a position of authority. But it has to start with the self – with each individual working out for themselves what their personal boundaries are, what they are or are not willing to go along with, whether in relationships or in other areas of life such as drugs or crime. If we don’t have this clear within us then we can’t express it to others and there is no reason why they should be expected to know it intuitively.
The need to know what one stands for and where one is going was brought home to me when I did a leadership day with horses, which I may have mentioned before as a life-changing moment. I was put in a ring with a horse with no bridle and I had to somehow persuade him to follow me. It was only once I became absolutely clear where I wanted him to go and had embodied that sense of direction in my body language that he deigned to follow me. I had to make my intention clear to myself first and not give fuzzy or ambiguous messages. When others know what you stand for they often – though not always – respond with respect. We can help young people to be prepared for either.
Growing up is complicated. Well let’s face it, life and other people can be complicated! We have to learn to develop the confidence to express our needs and opinions. Schools can provide a safe environment in which children can begin to think about the social areas of life. They can introduce topics such as values and principles and, through questions, help the child to identify their own set of values and boundaries. My colleague Diane Carrington and I wrote a book on this subject called Future Directions: Practical Ways to Develop Emotional Intelligence and Confidence in Young People (Network Continuum). In my own life I have found role play to be invaluable in integrating new behaviours as one literally has to learn new words, voice tone and body language in order to convey firmly enough what one is requesting or rejecting. One has to practice and rehearse the words sufficient times so that one’s response becomes built into muscle memory. This develops a sense of self and one’s rights that are firmly centred within.
They always say that you end up teaching what you need to learn and I did, indeed, find myself teaching assertiveness classes when I first set up my business, Positiveworks. I taught others and therefore learnt for myself that to be assertive means:
- Respecting yourself and giving respect to others. Recognising that you have as equal a right to your opinion as others do. You may have different opinions but can still honour one another.
- Taking responsibility for yourself, including the recognition that you have a responsibility towards others in how you communicate and act.
- Knowing what you want, feel or need and asking clearly for it by expressing your needs and feelings honestly but without punishing people or violating their rights.
- Being able to say no, or that you don’t understand.
- Being clear about what you want to accomplish, and then being prepared to negotiate on an equal basis of power rather than trying to win.
- Allowing yourself to make mistakes, to enjoy and talk about successes, to change your mind or to take time over a decision.
I was obviously a late starter but I came to see that each person has a right to their own opinion but not a right to force that opinion or need on others. And that you can say no to another person just because it doesn’t feel right to you but you don’t have to be unpleasant. You learn the language that helps you feel strong enough in yourself not to give your power away to another person or compromise your values. Useful phrases can include “No thanks, that doesn’t work for me.” “I can see what you’re saying but I don’t agree”. “I’d like to think about it.” “ I’ll decide when I am ready.” It’s the tone of your voice that will tell the other person whether you are choosing to be rude or whether you are understanding their position but holding your own position. It helps to keep your inner thoughts supportive too – such as “Just because the other person wants me to do something doesn’t mean I have to do it. I am the director of my own life, I can say no if I want to.” In this you have to become willing to be unpopular or be subjected to put-downs, called a spoilsport or worse, because ultimately you know that it is better to stand up for yourself than it is to be popular with others on their terms.
This is particularly difficult in teenage years, of course. Parents and teachers can support young people in these situations but only if they open their eyes to the kinds of challenges their children are experiencing and are willing to talk about them. Sex education is still often taught on a biological level. The assertive behaviours required in multiple situations in life and work often don’t get taught at all.
One doesn’t want to frighten a child but bringing these issues out into the open can help them be prepared and plan their response in advance. Teachers can be role models of assertive behaviour in how they discuss and deal with both boys and girls equally – unlike the teachers at my kindergarten. They can show zero tolerance of disrespectful behaviour on any level. Learning to manage conflict or demands are essential social skills that can be readily shared with children at school and at home. The earlier they are taught the better. They are life-skills.
Links: Future Directions by Helen Whitten and Diane Carrington https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Future_Directions.html?id=FY2tAwAAQBAJ&source=kp_cover&redir_esc=y .