Assertion v Aggression: How I taught my kids

Aggression is the last thing I thought this post would be about.

It is not my friend.

In my early experience of being bullied as a child, I realised that aggression more often than not started with verbal abuse and likewise that people often seemed to assert their rights aggressively rather than assertively. And thus it was I spent a great deal of energy as a young mother training my daughters and sons to understand and embrace the difference between ‘Verbal Assertion’ and ‘Verbal Aggression’ and an incident in my garden this morning reminded me of that fact.

I’m in the process of trying (once again) to find somewhere permanent for this old body to call home – not easy when one has a faithful pooch. And because I need to move, I was in the garden sorting out my potplants – (like my books, artworks and dog they’re coming with me no matter what).

Now anyone who reads NancyRants on any sort of regular basis would know that I do not hear…I FEEL…what’s going on around me.  But I can lip-read rather well and it was obvious that my young female neighbour at my front gate was yelling at me vigorously and waving what looked like an empty McDonald’s container rather aggressively in my direction. The fact that the veins in her neck were purple and swollen-ready-to-burst also helped my judgement of the situation.

‘Did you throw this over my fence?' she demanded to know. ‘What did you do that for?'  And I must admit here and now the first thought that flashed through my brain was “‘Guilty until proven Innocent’ – must be catching.”

‘No of course not’ I replied…showing as much surprise as I felt. ‘It might have been the wind.’

‘Wind nothing – why did you do it? Sick of it’ she shrieked.

So I opened my gate and beckoned her into my garden. ‘See these plants?’ See these pots? See these gardening tools ? See these bins?’

‘Of course I do, so what?’

‘Do you not see that there’s a sense of order here? Everything has its right place…and the right place for that empty packet is in a bin’ I said taking the packet from her ever so gently and dropping it into my garbage bin. ‘I would no more do that to you than I would do it to myself.’

‘Oh…um…I just thought it have been you ’

The aggression melted away. No pushing, shoving, kicking or punching had been needed.

And there’s an even better ending to this little incident that I’ll recount in a minute.

But first - back to Assertion v Aggression in their verbal form.

It was in the late Wal Cherry’s acting classes that I became truly aware of the one place where it's necessary to feed aggression with aggression. It's in the Theatre - one of the few places where tension and drama are vital. In an argument on stage, one cannot build to any sort of tension if the actor playing opposite you does not take his/her aggressive action a notch higher than your previous one until the scene reaches its climax. Bit of a fizzer - if you don’t build on the other’s performance.

And so it is in real life. Meet aggression with aggression and you’ll soon have a fight on your hands.

I taught my kids to meet aggression with assertive reason wherever possible.

But I also saw to it that they asserted their rights without verbal or physical bullying.

With four kids under the age of 5 and living in the Outback…I’d found it vital to self-preservation to set down parameters of behaviour - especially for a trip to the Supermarket. The main one was simple: help me get through this ordeal of shopping and we’ll go and celebrate our success with a little treat. Not only did it work…but it demonstrated perfectly on at least one occasion how to assert one’s rights.

Having had an extremely successful shopping expedition without any of my four whining, whingeing, fighting or placing unwanted objects surreptitiously in my shopping trolley…we set out for our treat. Destination: the local very exciting and rather expensive ice-cream shop that was a rare treat indeed.

We looked at the colourful signs placed on high behind the shop assistant. Huge swirls of delicious creamy confection in equally huge wafer cones held in very tiny hands met our gaze.  They were pricey but within our range for an every-so-often treat.

Deliberation was fascinatingly faster from these offspring of mine than for most questions asked of them and we verbally handed over our choices in double quick time.

To my horror we were presented with five of the tiniest cones imaginable topped with barely a large teaspoon of ice-cream. The looks of disappointment on my kids’ faces was unendurable – this for them was a very rare treat engendering much excitement and good behaviour. They did not deserve this unfair outcome.

I quietly explained to the man behind the counter that these offerings were not what we had ordered. ‘Either you are falsely advertising’ I said, pointing to the misleading signs or you have, for some reason decided to short-change us’.

All he did was repeat how much money I owed him.

‘Could I speak to the Manager please’ I asked, restraining my natural impulse to be a little curt with people who disappoint children.

‘I am the Manager,’ he said.  ‘Now pay up’.

We hadn’t touched the ice-creams as they were still sitting upright on the tray on the counter and my children looked from them to the Manager and back to me to see how I would handle the situation.

At this point I must revert to my own childhood to say that I was raised to live within my means, pay my bills but always question value for money. I have the utmost respect for retailers and their need to make a living – an honest living that is.

I explained all of that to the Ice-cream man who became very agitated and started shouting and threatening to get the police if I didn’t pay up.

The ice-creams began to melt – possibly because of the heat of the abuse being hurled at us - but it was essential that I demonstrated to my kids the veracity of my thoughts on handling aggression.

‘Consumer Affairs will be very interested in your false advertising if you wish to take this further’ I said, not matching his decibels.  ‘Your greed has prevented you from seeing that another teaspoon of ice-cream on each cone may have avoided this scene…but as it is you now have to work out what to do with five melted ice-creams that are not what we ordered and not coming with us.

And with that, I herded my brood as efficiently as a hen with chicks and left the store - icecream-less.

But it wasn’t all bad. We went to a much cheaper place…found much better value and discussed the situation like sensible people over ice-creams that were probably not as exotic but tasted every bit as though they were.  My kids were then aged  7, 6, 4 and 3 and I have to say they are rather astute shoppers today.

Back now to my young neighbour with the shouty voice.

As it turned out…this young woman is a University student – putting herself through a rather demanding degree, struggling with several subjects and not having too many resources at her disposal.

She now has many of my no-longer-needed research books on her desk and probably far more importantly, a new outlook on handling a situation assertively rather than with aggression.

We even shared a cup of tea.

It's little wonder then that my granddaughters, every Wednesday are getting their share of Nanna’s theory: Assertion is always better than Aggression…often with benefits to all.

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