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Science Fair Push-Back


Brad Washburn, Do the Dad Thing bloggerTeaching our kids to be assertive is one of the most challenging tasks of being a dad.

 Having an assertive adult as an end result is great!  Raising an assertive kid . . . is not so great.

 First I probably need to clarify this word “assertive.”  I’ll do it, using the 3 Little Bears analogy (which is, one of the great analogies of all time):

 . . . And Goldilocks tried being Aggressive, means being hostile, exploitive, and coercive to get what you want – but that was too much and she drove people away.

Then Goldilocks tried being Passive, which means deferring to other people, even when you have strong opinions or desires, but that made her have low self-worth and low self-esteem.

She even tried being Passive/Aggressive, a technique that involves deferring to people (giving in) . . . but then finding some other way to get what you want. — usually through means that include being quietly hostile and exploitive.

But then she tried being Assertive.  It’s speaking directly and honestly about what you want and trying to get it by collaborating with people and communicating clearly.

And it was juuuust right.

 After that, the three bears came home and wondered why this blond girl was in their house debating active ego communicative strategies . . .

The point is that we’d obviously all love to have our kids grow up and be assertive.  We want them to strive to achieve without achievement being their identity, and to tell the truth they believe boldly, and to work toward solutions that include others.  Learning that process throughout childhood is rough on parents for several reasons:

Kids go to each extreme while they are trying to find the sweet spot of ‘assertive’

How do kids achieve the ‘balance’ of assertive?  They try out being aggressive.  Then they evaluate the effectiveness.  Then, they try being passive and evaluate the effectiveness.  Each one of their ‘tries’ results in a swing of both mood and communication.

Kids want to practice with you . . . at home

As a dad, you’re safe.  So, kids want to use your relationship as a ‘sandbox’ to try out different kinds of communication strategies.  If they work on you, then they try them on their friends.

Parents are not assertive themselves

Some parents never really adapted the ‘just right’ of being assertive.  So, knowing how to respond to a kid that is being aggressive, forthright, or passive creates an internal struggle.  Many parents that grew up in an abusive household react with anger or let their kids become the dominant force in the home.

Parents get offended by kid assertiveness

Some people, and I’m calling out ‘Boomers definitely,’ were raised with the idea that anything less than quiet docile obedience was wrong.  “Why in my day, I’d be slapped across the room if I said that I didn’t like castor oil.”

There are positive strategies to help your kids develop positive self-esteem and self-worth through practicing and learning assertiveness:

Reward their assertiveness

When your son/daughter hits that ‘just right’ area of assertiveness, point it out and praise them.   “Hey, I noticed that you told your friend that you didn’t like gummy worms even though all your other friends were saying they were good.  That’s good to speak up directly for what you like and don’t like.”

Model assertiveness

As a parent, do a self-check on how you interact with others, especially when they are demanding.  Practice being assertive with others and your kids will see you.

Have them practice assertiveness at school

This point is where the title of this article has been generated.  It involves a story . . .

One summer in Florida a turtle crawled out of the swamp and laid eggs in our front yard.  Right place/right time – we filmed it.  Then, to our horror, when we were taking the dog out in the evening, we caught a raccoon in the process of digging all the eggs up and eating them.  We chased the ‘coon’ off and rescued 4 eggs.

I came up with the idea, “Why don’t you incubate these eggs, two inside and two outside, and document it for this next year’s science fair?”

So that started the process of carefully incubating, measuring, and checking two sets of turtle eggs . . . for months.  Seriously, turtle eggs take 3 ½ months to hatch.  When fall came, my youngest son had an incredible biology-focused science fair project.

. . . . then, someone complained to someone, and someone went to the bureaucracy, then . . . someone from the School District called me.  The concern was that, in the future, kids might try to do experiments with animals and accidently hurt them.  So, my son would have to do a whole new Science Fair project because turtle hatch was not allowed.

My feelings were not assertive at that point.  Nor were they ‘passive.’  I immediately defaulted internally to Incredible Hulk mode.  However, I needed to model how to maintain composure, and thank God (thank you God) that He gave me the strength to clearly outline how punishing my son currently for a policy they were making for the future was inappropriate.  I had to ask to speak to the District Superintendent, and went through the whole thing again.  The Superintendent deferred to the local elementary school for how they would ‘enact this new policy.”

That’s when my son was suddenly on the front lines with having to be clear and forthright to his teacher.  He had to stick to the work that he did.  He had to clearly say that he wasn’t doing a ‘whole new’ experiment, and he had to boldly, but kindly, defer any teachers to talk to me.

Then we both had to go and meet with the Principal.

Two points to this:  Never do a science fair with turtles!  And the other point:  I’m SO GLAD that he practiced being firm and forthright with someone else rather than me.  I was with my kid almost every day telling me “I don’t want” and trying to negotiate a change in my decisions, and giving up on speaking up with kids and his brother.  I was elated that he was doing all this practicing with someone else for a change.

I’d rather the school personnel, that I pay, deal with my kids learning assertiveness – that way I can

  • Back my kids up
  • Advise them from the sidelines

Advising from the sidelines could be another whole topic in itself.  This is going to need at least a follow-up article.  I can see many of the dads that read this column plunging into the realm of Assertiveness totally unprepared.  Which, is actually the main idea with ‘practicing’ assertiveness.   Once again, let me know how it goes with your kids.  The comments are open; assertiveness is a project just like a science fair.

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