Assertiveness Training for First-Graders

Note: In this post, I write about talking with my daughter about “unwanted touching” and about feeling powerless in medical situations. Please proceed with care and self-compassion if either of these is a trigger for you.

I asked my daughter this morning, “If a doctor does something that hurts you or makes you feel uncomfortable, is it okay to tell the doctor, ‘No! Don’t do that!’?”

“No, it’s not okay,” my daughter answered, eyes wide.

I felt a tingle of fear in my chest.

She and I have been attending the “Our Whole Lives” K-1 sexuality class series at our church for the past few weeks. We talk about our bodies and the cool things they can do and how to keep our bodies safe and healthy. We talk about relationships and families and the different ways families are made. This weekend the topic was what to do if someone touches you or says something that hurts or just feels wrong in some way.

It was pretty intense.

At one point I started getting nervous. I wondered if my daughter, at just shy of seven years old, was too young to be learning this. Beyond her brother head-butting her, I don’t think she’s ever thought about someone doing something to hurt her or needing to defend herself. I worried that this would plant a seed of fear in her that would make her distrustful and nervous. I want my daughter to trust herself, including trusting her fear and her intuition, but I want her to trust other people, too. I don’t want her to be fearful; I want her to be confident and safe.

The facilitator encouraged us parents to continue to bring up these issues at home in a casual manner. I picked a situation—the doctor situation—that stuck out to me as one that seemed particularly unclear to my daughter (and to the other kids in class). Hearing her answer, I was both glad I brought it up and fearful that I was in over my head.

“Why is it not okay to say no to a doctor?” I asked as evenly as possible, my heart pounding in my ears.

“Because she’s a doctor and the things she’s doing are to make you better, even if they hurt,” my daughter answered.

"Doktor Schnabel von Rom" ("Doc...
"Doktor Schnabel von Rom" ("Doctor Beak from Rome") engraving, Rome 1656 Physician attire for protection from the Bubonic plague or Black death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband says I hate doctors. This isn’t completely accurate. I just don’t trust doctors implicitly. In my experience, most doctors act as though they have a right to act upon my body in whatever way they choose, regardless of the opinion of the person (me) attached to the body. This kind of attitude tends to turn interactions with doctors into traumatic experiences for me.

I am not good at speaking up to doctors. I dislike conflict and in my experience, doctors do not back down easily, which makes it necessary to be very, very clear and firm about my preferences. I generally lack that level of conviction when in a medical setting, especially when there’s the lurking fear that, even if I’m crystal clear and expertly assertive, they’ll do just what I’ve told them not to.

Exhibit A: My experience birthing my first child at the hospital. I went into it with my experience as a doula and all of my education and information. I knew what I wanted and I was prepared to get it. But when I was there, I became someone I didn’t recognize. I can’t have my underwear back? Okay. I can’t move more than three feet from my bed? No problem. You want to perform procedures on me that are not medically indicated without my informed consent and that I’ve specifically said I don’t want? Have at it. You want to have residents perform these procedures for the first time on me? Sure. I did put my foot down when the doctor told me to pick the time for my non-medically-indicated c-section (and I birthed my daughter vaginally just hours later, thank you very much).

Or perhaps my daughter’s birth is Exhibit B and Exhibit A is when, at age 6, I kicked and screamed myself purple while four grown men held me down so a nurse could give me a booster shot. Or maybe it’s when—well, there are a lot of reasons why I distrust medical-type people.

My question is, how do I teach my daughter to stand up for herself when receiving medical treatment when it’s not something I’m adept at doing myself? How do I teach her to both trust and distrust an authority figure? And how do I do this without giving her a phobia of doctors?

Here’s what I went with:

“Sometimes doctors need to do things that hurt our bodies in order to help our bodies heal themselves. Like when you got your stitches? It hurt to get those, but it helped your body heal faster than if you hadn’t gotten them. But it’s a doctor’s job to make sure that they don’t hurt us emotionally while they’re helping us physically. Doctors are human beings. They’re not always right. And they don’t always know how the things they’re doing feel to their patients. If you tell them, that gives them a chance to explain what’s going on to you better. If they explain it well enough, what they do might still hurt your body, but you will feel comfortable in your heart and in your mind. If you don’t feel comfortable in your heart and your mind, they’re not helping you the way they’re supposed to do.”

My explanation was clumsy and wordy, and doesn’t remotely address all of the nuances I was trying to get across. I know we’re going to have to have this conversation multiple times before I feel confident that she understands that no one has carte blanche to do or say things that hurt her or make her feel icky or weird just because they’re a doctor or a minister or a police officer or a relative or a friend of one of her parents or anyone else in authority. I want her to know in her heart, without a doubt, that she matters and her feelings matter and that no one has a right to manipulate her or wield power over her for any reason.

It’s a complicated message to get across. I hope that, through a combination of my words and my actions, I’ll be able to leave her with the confidence to protect herself. And maybe I can gain more skill in standing up for myself in the process.

Have you addressed this issue with your own children or in some other setting? What have you found works to help kids feel confident that they have the tools to protect themselves rather than fearful of the “bad” things that might happen?

5 Replies to “Assertiveness Training for First-Graders”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. My daughter is only (nearly) 5, so I definitely don’t want to scare her or bring up things she hasn’t thought of. She’s an over-thinker and bit of a worrier anyway so it could really be problematic.
    I saw a youtube thing about a little girl who managed *not* to get snatched in walmart, partly because she had just had a “stranger danger” class. I’ve been thinking about this ever since. If she had frozen instead of reacting by hitting, kicking and screaming, she would have been gone. Instead the guy dropped her and ran.
    So, how do I give my daughter this “skill” without scaring her. I’m very protective out in public, but at any point I could drop my guard for a moment. Especially as she gets older and is so much more confident and capable. And actually needs to feel she had freedom to explore.
    Okay. so what’s the solution? We want to get her into a martial art. She’s really strong physically and needs the outlet actually. She’s wanting to kick, etc… I’m looking for the right instructor. I like martial arts for kids. In my experience the teachers have a way of bestowing a sense of respect and honor and discipline through the traditions of the martial art that get through to the kids in ways parents can’t always.
    Sorry for going on and on….
    I like what you told your daughter about the doctor. I believe it’s so important to teach our children how to trust their instincts. I try to never over-ride my daughter’s gut. We may have to work around things but it’s always acknowledged and honored.
    That one thing can carry her through most situations in her life, I think.
    I’d love to hear more about your experience with this.


    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I was thinking this afternoon and remembered the book by Gavin De Becker called Protecting the Gift. I’ve not read it, but a friend recommended it a few years ago. She said it made a case against warning kids away from all strangers (I think because it can cause just the type of fear and over-worry that you and I both want to avoid) and instead gives suggestions for how to help children trust their instincts and act on them. Or at least, that’s what I remember my friend saying. I should probably pick up the book now. Barbara Mackoff does mention a little about this in her book, Growing a Girl, which is excellent for other reasons, too.

      As far as martial arts go, I have another friend with a very active daughter who did parent-child aikido classes with her. He and she both loved the experience. We’ve not gone that route with our daughter mostly because the scheduling hasn’t worked out for us, but I really like the idea.


      1. I love the philosophy of Aikido. I forgot about that one! I’ll put those books on my list too. But the way that goes… hopefully you’ll write about them when you read them (hint, hint)


  2. Your post reminds me of a situation that happened when my daughter went to preschool for the first time. It was a Montessori school that left us with many unpleasant memories. In any case, the teacher one day tells me that I should explain at home to my daughter that she cannot say no to teachers. I was furious. Of course she should say no to teachers if needed, what kind of message was that?

    I agree with you that nuances are very important when discussing with our children the best way to behave in front of authority figures. Of course, I do have a problem with authority figures (particularly doctors): I am both very scared of them (in face-to-face situations) and very defiant (when safe at home, by myself). I guess I am trying to teach my daughter to trust her own judgement first after carefully considering any situation. I’m probably not doing it too well, because you’re right, it is a very complicated message and situations are almost never black or white.


    1. Wow. The idea of telling my child she can’t say no to a teacher (or anyone, for that matter) just feels really dangerous to me. Thanks for commenting, Lori!


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