I'll Order the Assertiveness Platter With a Side of Courage, Please.

By Jeremy Bangs

I was the kid in school who never raised his hand and dreaded the thought of speaking in front of the class.

My folks, when introducing me to new people, would have to step to one side because I was hiding behind them.

My shy nature became an unnecessary encumberment to the simplest of things. Just asking a clerk at the store for directions to the thing I was there to buy, was an exercise in courage.

By the time I got to college, I had enough awareness that I needed to force myself out of this shell. I loved to write and was drawn to journalism, but I also had this sense that I needed to put myself in situations that required me to talk to people and inject me in to unfamiliar situations. Otherwise, I foresaw a future where I’d end up talking to no one. Being a reporter fit that bill and over the years, in my professional persona, I talked to people of all walks of life and experienced things I never would have otherwise.

So it is, with all of this in my personal makeup, that I have been somewhat deliberate in my efforts to make my daughter, Livvy, more assertive than I was.

I can see that she, at the age of 9, has the natural gift of precociousness that goes a long way toward beating shyness. Still, she needs a nudge in the right direction at times.

Years ago, I started making her order her food at restaurants. We read the menu together and sort out what she’ll be eating and drinking that night. But when the waiter asks if we’re ready to order, I say we are and then pass the conversation over to Livvy. She knows I’m expecting her to look the waiter in the eye, speak loud enough that he can hear her over the din of restaurant clatter and place her order. She knows questions are coming. “What side would you like? What would you like to drink?”

It’s a simple thing, but it’s a skill that has been the foundation of other, more important steps in her evolution away from childhood shyness.

At the library the other day, she asked me if they had a series of books she’s been reading at school. I told her she could look it up on the computer or ask the librarian at the front desk downstairs. Down the stairs she marched to ask her question.

When we tried baking dog treats from scratch, Livvy got the idea we should sell them.

“We should ask the pet store people if we can put a bowl of them on the counter!” she said. I tried, for a while, to explain all the reasons why that would never work - until I realized I was missing an opportunity.

“Call the store and ask them,” I said.

She wasn’t thrilled with that idea, but her trepidation was no match for her passion for her idea in that moment and soon she was on the phone. I could hear the other end of the conversation of a clerk caught awkwardly off-guard, but I didn’t care. My goal wasn’t the creation of a distribution channel for dog treats. In fact, I was secretly hoping there would be no distribution for these things at all. I just wanted my daughter to ask a question that I would have been afraid to ask in my childhood. My own rationalizations, I suspect, have transformed that childhood fear into an adult perception that asking such a question is pointless.

Which brings us back to the over-arching goal of instilling my daughter with a sense of assertiveness. Being able to speak up for one’s own needs and desires begins with the ability to speak up about anything.

In the whole “it takes a village” idea of raising children, unsuspecting waiters, librarians and pet store managers have a role to play, whether they like it or not. They can be the test subjects upon which this skill of speaking up can be applied. Learning now how to be unencumbered in these interactions, my hope is that Livvy will grow up to better equipped to explore the deeper benefits of assertiveness. She’ll be able to speak her mind in uncomfortable situations with friends, co-workers, boyfriends and her own family.

As I’ve written before, change starts at the edges and works its way in. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ll always look for edges.

Jeremy Bangs is a single father of a 9-year-old daughter, Olivia. He spent more than 17 years as a writer, photographer and managing editor for community newspapers along Colorado’s Front Range.