When my daughter was 11 years old she came home and told me about an exam that she had taken at school. She believed that she got an answer on her test right but the teacher had marked it wrong. It was a multiple test question and my daughter believed that there were two possible answers. She asked me if she could go to the teacher to discuss the question. I responded, “Of course, just ask the teacher if it is okay to discuss the test with her.” My daughter spoke to her teacher the next day.
According to my daughter, she approached the teacher and asked her if they could talk about he test. The teacher replied yes. My daughter then began to discuss why she believed both answers a and b were possible based on what the teacher taught them in class. She also took out her notes to show the teacher. The teacher gave her the point and then said, “You know, a teacher might not like to be challenged like this and you need to be very careful what you say. Who put you up to this? Who is the lawyer in the family?” My daughter’s heart started to race and she responded, “My mother is an attorney and I want to be one as well.” The exchange ended and my daughter came home crying. She said, “Mom, I am never going to ask a teacher a question again even if I think they are wrong."
It just takes one moment and one experience to make children feel that they can’t stand up for what they believe in and this was one of those moments.
I quickly said to my daughter, “You did nothing wrong. You asked if you could discuss the test. I think your teacher did not like to be challenged but part of learning is questioning. You have a right to express your opinion at all times as long as you are respectful about it. It is a great lesson of how people may react when they don’t like what you are saying. But don't let that stop you. I am very proud of you for standing up and getting the point.” My daughter said, “You are?” I responded, “Yes, this is how you change the world: by having the courage to speak up whether other people like it or not.”
We had to have the same conversation for quite a few days before my daughter got it. I truly believe it was a pivotal moment in her life.
I was lucky that my daughter shared this story with me, but there are so many moments as parents that we do not get to hear about when our children feel disempowered or confused about how to confront a situation. Our children may be unaware of how a particular situation is affecting them and other times they may choose not to share things with us. Therefore, it is important for us to constantly try to encourage them in various ways.
Here are a few suggestions that may help your child to find their voice:
1. When your child is experiencing a conflict at school or at home invite them to propose some ways of dealing with the situation. Try to find a solution together and encourage your child to find their voice while seeking resolution;
2. Try to let your child make more decisions about some matters that concern them. Maybe include them in the decision of where you are going for dinner or let them help plan a family vacation;
3. Engage in current event discussions at meals or during some free time instead of watching television or the computer. Ask them their opinion about conflicts around the world and how they would resolve them. Give them examples of change that happened when people stood up for their rights; and
4. Pick a few social issues that are important to the family whether volunteering for a charity, advocating for new legislation or participating in community activities. Show them through your own actions that their voice matters and change is possible.
Teaching our children to find their voices might not be the easiest path for us as parents but it is an investment in our children’s and the world’s future.
I dedicate this post to Malala Yousafzai, the heroic fourteen-year old Pakistani girl that was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for speaking up for girls’ right to education. With all my heart, I hope courageous Malala recovers and continues to be a hero that inspires us all to speak up and make the world a better place.