Affirming Your Children’s Voice: How And When To Encourage Your Child To Speak Up

By: Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

"Stop interrupting me when I'm talking."
"You have to learn to speak up for yourself."
"You ask too many questions."
"Tell me with words. I don't understand whining."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Don't bug me when I'm on the phone."
"You should have brought that concern to me."

These phrases and others like them are sending mixed messages to our children. They are telling them: Talk, but don't talk. I want to hear your opinion, but not all the time. It's no wonder many of our children are confused about when and how to access their own voice.

Children don't automatically know when and how to speak up. They don't understand the appropriate times to interrupt. Nor do they often demonstrate the skills that will enable them to speak up effectively. They don't understand the power of words and how to use them to create change in their lives.

The most effective way for children to learn when and how to speak up is for you to teach them. If you want children to learn to use their voice in appropriate ways at appropriate times, you have to help them.

Below are suggestions for when and how to encourage your child to create his or her own voice so he or she can become an empowered, confident, self-responsible youngster.

Children need to speak up when...

  1. They need help. 

    Children need help stacking blocks, reaching toys on a high shelf, writing a thank you letter, understanding a math concept, handling a peer relationship, and in many other situations as they move through each developmental stage. Some situations they can handle themselves. Others they cannot. A key component to becoming independent is knowing when and how to ask for help.

  2. They want something.

    Yes, it's okay for children to ask for what they want. Just because a child learns to speak up and ask for what she wants doesn't mean she will get it. Sometimes what a child wants is unhealthy or unsafe. It is our job as parents to deny those requests while respecting the child's right to vocalize her desire to get what she wants. 

    For some children, whining becomes the preferred way of asking for what they want. Our role is to give our children useful words to say what they want instead of whining. By helping them learn to say, "I want to stay up longer," "I want to be held," or "I want to get down," you teach them that using words is their best hope for getting what they want in your family. They also come to understand that whining doesn't work with you.

    Say, "Brandon, that's whining. Whining doesn't work with me. Use your words to tell me what you want. By using words, you sometimes get what you want. Sometimes you don't. And it's your only hope

  3. They prefer NOT to have something.

    Did you ever go on vacation with a teenager who didn't want to be there, one who pouted for the entire week you spent in a cabin in the woods? If so, you know the value of teaching children to voice their opposition to something you want for them. "I don't really like hooded sweatshirts," is important information to have before you make a sixty dollar purchase that your child will never wear. "Lima beans is my least favorite vegetable," is valuable data to accumulate before you head to the grocery store.

  4. Their personal space has been violated.

    Children need to be taught to find and access their voice whenever they experience inappropriate touch. Being touched in the private areas is always inappropriate. A discussion of appropriate and inappropriate touch needs to be held early and often in a child's life. Role-play both kinds of touch. Teach your children to speak up clearly if inappropriate touch occurs. Teach young children to say, "That's not appropriate," or "Nobody gets to touch me there." Teach them to use their voice to tell you if anyone touches them in an inappropriate way. Practice that conversation. Teach them the words to use. "Dad, Billy touched me," or "I got a wrong touch."

    Help your teen learn to say, "It's my body and I want you to respect it," and "The answer is 'No' and I don't need a reason."

    In addition to inappropriate touch, children need to learn to speak up to defend their personal space. Aunt Tilly doesn't get to plant a big wet kiss on a child without his approval. Your child does not have to be hugged if he doesn't want a hug. Even the gentlest touch in the most common of places is not okay if the child doesn't feel like being touched. Help him or her to say, "I don't really want a hug right now," and "I'm not comfortable being kissed."

  5. They are asked a direct question.

    Recently, we asked a four-year-old how she was doing. The mother spoke for the child and replied, "She's feeling kind of shy today." The child never looked up. There was no need to. The mother was her voice.

    When you speak for your child, you teach her there is no need to activate her own voice. The message you send her is, Your voice is not important. There is no need to use it. I'll take care of your thinking and responding. When you speak for your child, you encourage her to do less speaking for herself in the future.

  6. Someone is in danger.

    We wish someone had spoken up before the massacre at Columbine High School a few years ago. We wish someone had used his or her voice before the most recent teen suicide. Whenever there is potential danger, we want and need children to speak up. And we want them to do it quickly.

    "I don't want to hear any tattling" a parent recently told her son as he began to tell a story about his older sister. But what if the older sister was stuck in a tree and was hanging from her broken ankle? What if the sibling was playing with matches? What if a schoolmate was urging her to sniff cleaning fluid?

    Teach your child the difference between getting someone IN trouble and getting them OUT of trouble. If your son wants to tell you about how his sister took his ball to get her in trouble, teach him to use his voice to communicate his desires and feelings to his sister. Teach him to say, "I don't like it when you take my ball. I want you to give it back." Be there with him when he speaks to his sister to make sure his words are heard.

    If your son witnesses a dangerous situation, teach him to communicate it quickly and directly. Give him some starter words that will tip you off that he is communicating potential danger. "Mom, I see danger," "Shannon needs help," or "Trouble alert" work well as clues that danger is lurking.

  7. They feel afraid, angry, sad, hurt, or frustrated.

    Teach your children to communicate their feelings. Use feeling words in their presence often so they develop a broad-based feeling vocabulary. Say, "I'm feeling really frustrated right now," "I get scared when I climb on the roof," or "I'm disappointed that the rain washed out my softball game." By using feeling words yourself, you help your children learn about their own feelings and the need to express them. You give them permission to have feelings and teach them the names for those feelings so they are more likely to articulate them in the future.

    Tell your youngster, "You seem really angry with your brother right now. Why not tell him how angry you get when he marks on your paper?" Say to your teen, "Sounds to me like you are deeply disappointed that your dad wasn't there on time. It might be helpful to him and to you to communicate that to him."

Finding and learning how to use their own voice is a lifelong process for children. By implementing the above strategies with respect, patience, and understanding, we help our children gain skill and confidence when speaking up for themselves.

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose. They also publish a FREE email newsletter for parents. Subscribe to it at Visit,, and


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