A parent comes home from work at 7:00pm, ready to relieve her babysitter and spend a couple of precious hours with her children before bedtime. She finds her 4th grader slumped over a math textbook and her 7th grader staring at the computer screen with a bad case of writer’s block. A chorus of “Mom! I need you!” erupts. Exhausted and hungry, she heats a bowl of leftovers from the fridge, sits down to help the 4th grader. After two hours of problem-solving and bed-time routine, she finds her 7th grader glued to the same seat, now with a heading on his document and a working title. It is 9:00pm. His eyes are heavy. They start talking, and an argument ensues. She realizes he’s beyond the point of return. They both are. “Give me your notes,” she says. “Go to bed. I’ll finish the draft.”
Who among us hasn’t chosen the path of least resistance when we’re drained? Balancing competing demands is a theme of 21st century life, complicated further by the exhausting demands of the Silicon Valley lifestyle. “Helping” our children with their work may not only relieve the pressure of conflicts around homework, but anxieties we have about the many elements of our children’s growth touted as imperatives by the media, parenting experts, and contemporary child-rearing literature. We know it’s important for our kids to do well in school, but—as we’re told--they must also sleep, exercise, socialize, problem-solve, innovate, lead, and the list goes on….
Silicon Valley parents find themselves in a culture that prizes Ivy League admissions and a narrow vision of success. Some push their children to achieve, achieve, achieve, at the cost of physical, mental, and spiritual health. Even the most grounded parents express sadness and frustration at a kind of peer pressure where conversations of children’s achievement can devolve into dialogues of one-up-manship. Parents may start “supporting” their children in ways that do not serve the child, figuring that’s what everyone else is doing, so why not?
Fast forward a few years. Mothers and fathers contact professors to haggle over grades for their adult children. They call university staff to complain about anything from minor roommate disputes to a lack of variety in the dining hall salad bar. Professors report a disturbing trend toward interference, with parents monitoring student college performance and even contributing directly to students’ coursework. These behaviors don’t emerge spontaneously when a child turns 18. The stage is set, early on. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, writes: “What you have is a generation who expects their parents to do things for them. And they expect that because their parents have always done things for them.”
Despite best intentions, parents who become overly involved in their children’s education risk stealing their autonomy, confidence, and agency. Intense parental involvement has been linked to stress, depression and dissatisfaction, not only for children but also for their mothers and fathers.
It’s hard to see kids struggle. We have natural impulses to shield or save them from what we fear they cannot handle. There are times when parents must step in; when our children’s safety is called into question, when their health or mental health suffer, when they find themselves in danger or cannot find a way out of suffering, we must intervene. But too many of us are tossing a life raft to our children when they don’t need rescuing. They simply need to learn how to swim. One of the most effective tools we can give our kids is lessons in self-advocacy.
The term “self-advocacy” emerged in the late 1960s, when people with disabilities and their supporters began collectively speaking out to fight for their rights as citizens and human beings. They raised their voices, identifying and asserting their needs in powerful ways that had been ignored for too long.
Self-advocacy: What, Why, and How
Self-advocacy is a person’s ability to effectively communicate, negotiate, or assert his/her interests, wishes, needs, and rights. It starts with self-awareness. Students who know themselves know their strengths and challenges.
Why self-advocate? Learning what they need in order to be successful (and asking for it) helps students throughout their academic journeys and beyond. Teachers are not mind-readers, and sometimes students’ needs are overlooked, because the teacher doesn’t know that a problem even exists. When teachers see that a student is caring, motivated, and willing to ask for assistance, they’re generally eager to help.
Self-advocacy is also useful in relationships. Children can gain insight about what they bring to others (contribute) in relationships and what they need from others, for healthy bonds. By articulating their needs and becoming aware of the needs of others, they can develop into healthy adults with healthy relationships. Finally, self-advocacy matters in the workplace. Can a person be successful if he doesn’t have the tools to do his job? Can someone grow in a company if she doesn’t have the voice to assert herself, ask for a salary increase, negotiate for better working conditions?
Self-advocacy is a critical tool our children need, to develop into healthy, self-assured, autonomous adults. Here are some guidelines to consider as you support your child in developing self-advocacy skills:
For all ages:
- Set a positive tone by role modeling resilience to challenges. Teach positive self-talk.
- Support critical thinking by addressing strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Problem-solve with your child by asking open-ended questions, brainstorming, and solution-building.
- Identify and leverage support systems (teachers, counselors, tutors, you…).
- Provide specific encouragement and recognize consecutive efforts made.
- When your child comes to you with a problem, ask how s/he thinks s/he can solve it.
- Teach your child about assets and deficits—and how assets can be leveraged in service of deficits.
- Build compensatory skills, accommodations needed to succeed.
- Practice how to communicate and ask for help in a positive way.
- Use role-play and humor to rework situations that were uncomfortable in the past or to simulate solutions for current challenges.
- Use all strategies above.
- Promote self-advocacy through teacher meetings.
- Build self-awareness regarding your child’s strengths and challenges. Help him or her identify strategies or tools that will contribute to his or her success, then ask for/employ them.
- Tell your child that it’s appropriate to inform a teacher of strategies that support success: “I can’t seem to grasp this from the sample model. Could you discuss each step you demonstrate? I think I’d do much better in your class with that help.”
- Use all strategies above.
- Promote self-knowledge by asking open-ended questions, increasing awareness of strengths, and ways to leverage strengths in dealing with difficulties.
- High schoolers should be encouraged to participate in the process that defines their learning, especially in the development of IEP or 504 plans, if relevant.
- They should know their rights, be able to present a comprehensive description of their assets and deficits, and contribute actively to teacher meetings.
Join me in championing the capacity of our kids to learn about and express themselves as advocates for their own learning. Teaching our children to know and articulate their strengths, challenges, and needs will help them move through the world with integrity, honesty, and strength. This is the best kind of “help” we can give our children, the kind that empowers them…and us!
Do you have a story of advocacy in your own child’s life? I’d love to hear it! Please email me at: email@example.com.
 Adapted from “Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities” Self-Advocacy: Strategies for All Ages By Marcia Brown Rubinstien, MA, CEP