Raising Kids Who Are Pleasers

I want my kids to break rules. It sounds crazy, but my husband and I agree. We want our kids to not be so straight-laced and tightly wound that they crumple like a dry leaf when they get in trouble at school. That doesn’t happen often. My kids put so much pressure on themselves to do right. They put pressure on us to follow the rules. Drive five miles over the speed limit and my son will tell me I’m speeding. He’ll repeat it until I slow down, that quake in his voice lets me know he’s worried.

At some point, my kids need to learn that people mess up and it’s OK. They need to know that some rules aren’t hard and fast. They need to know that some rules are stupid.

My kids follow the rules because we taught them to. But I don’t want my kids to be so scared that if they break the rules, the world will end. We’ve created pleasers. My kids don’t want to let anyone down. They don’t want to tell anyone no, even a friend who wants to trade them for their favorite toy pony or bracelet. “Sure, you can have that one,” my daughter has said, only to cry about it later.

My son will let someone demonstrate a cool trick on his arm, giving him a burning mark in the process. Then he’ll let them repeat it. “Why didn’t you tell him to stop?” I ask, inspecting the redness. He liked it. I think he’s afraid that saying no will spoil the friendship.

He’ll give in to a friend who begs to eat his chips every day. But is that really just bullying at some point? Fifth-grade teachers are strict about bathroom time this year. One girl has already wet her pants. My son has already been denied several times. I gave him strict instruction to break the rules over peeing on himself. This is a stupid rule. “Don’t wet your pants,” I told him. “Get up and run to the bathroom.” No fifth grader will live that down. “But I’ll get a check,” he said, terrified of the thought of a tiny checkmark at the teacher’s desk proving he broke a rule.

I know where my kids get this from: the mom who can’t say no. I am easily talked into some PTA committee I should have walked away from or agreeing to a friend’s favor I didn’t want to do. But I figure I’m available or I’ll already be at the event, so why not help out?

Being a pleaser isn’t a good thing. I’ve never gained anything from it but headaches. I’ve rarely gotten the return favor that helps me out. I’m learning to say no more and not give reasons. “I can’t” must be enough.

I want my kids to be more assertive. My son can’t always be the nice guy. My kids don’t need to be perfect. I tell them that. “Get a checkmark,” I told my son. If a teacher wants to give him a checkmark for going to the bathroom, let her be the bad guy. I’ll deal with her.

Shouldn’t I be proud of good, nice kids? Sure. But I was a kid once. I see cause for concern. When my son is older, what would he say to a friend who asks him to hide a mysterious bag in his locker at school? What would my daughter say to someone who asks for the answers during a test? What would either say to someone who wants to vandalize school property? Those consequences are damaging.

The truth is, there will be times when I want my son to be a jerk. He can be cool for sticking up for his beliefs and still be kind to people. It takes guts to not follow the crowd. And girls need to know that a lot of women broke stupid rules and made history. Being a pleaser never got anyone anywhere. No is the most empowering word I can teach them.

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62 Comments

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62 responses to “Raising Kids Who Are Pleasers

  1. I think this is a great post, one parallel to the post I wrote about imperfect parenting and using “choice words”. Life is a lesson, and so many times we test on the same subject over and over again;) Thanks for your post today!

  2. Thank you for the food for thought. I see my kids being extreme pleasers, and you have made some great points about them needing to stand up for themselves as they get older. I hate those stupid bathroom rules at school too! It can be so hard sometimes to find the balance between teaching kids to respect rules and respect themselves at the same time.

  3. What a great topic. Thanks for your post. I struggle with this too, I have a son in 3rd grade, almost 9. And I’m constantly being told he needs to be “reciprocal” to others and that means not always doing things his way. Listening to others, etc. But I find the opposite happens and instead he thinks his ideas aren’t worth anything. He should always do what others want him to do, becomes that extreme pleaser….it’s hard to teach that perfect balance.

    • That is very hard. What I’ve told my son in the past is to respect everyone. He doesn’t have to like them, but he does have to treat them with respect. He doesn’t have to be friends with them. There is a difference. If he is forced by teachers on the playground to let someone play a game who argues and pushes and is difficult, I tell him he has the choice to walk away from the game. He doesn’t have to play with them. I don’t think being “reciprocal” is a good idea. Isn’t compromise suggested?

  4. Amazing post; thank-you for taking the time to write something so poignant, something that I feel so many parents are thinking about, but aren’t quite sure how to word ‘correctly’. I am definitely one of those parents, also a ‘pleaser’. THANK-YOU.

  5. Wonderful post. I agree–teaching kids self-assertiveness is important, and doing it in a way that helps them understand to still be respectful while being assertive. Not always an easy thing.

    I’m glad you brought up the no-bathroom break policy. That drives me crazy when teachers and/or schools do that, and in my professional career, I’ve written letters to the school on a parent and child’s behalf. It’s not healthy to withhold, and some children need more frequent bathroom breaks than others. To make a child hold it until she wets herself makes me want to cry in both anger and sympathy. Talk about causing emotional pain in a child. So ridiculous.

    • I can’t tell you how angry I was when I heard that and it wasn’t my child! I understand that some children take advantage of it, but honestly deal with those children. Some people need to go often. Some people need to go because they get nervous. Some people can hold it all day. Everyone’s body is different. It’s hard to focus on schoolwork when you are physically in pain because you have to go to the bathroom. And these are young children who are growing! Oh, I could rant all day about it. I hope my kids listened to me when I said to break that rule!

      • “I understand that some children take advantage of it, but honestly deal with those children.”—Exactly! As you say, who can focus on schoolwork when they’re trying not to pee their pants? I’m ranting right alongside you on this one.

      • Surely they are not all in there taking advantage! The bathroom is a nasty place from what I hear.

  6. Liked your post, it is oh so true. It’s all a question of balance of so called rules without being dictatorial or losing self respect.
    Your kids are going to grow up knowing it’s OK to say ‘NO’ sometimes and if they lose friends for saying that, they weren’t friends to start with.

    • That is true and that’s a tough thing to try to teach. I remember not wanting to lose friends and taking a long time to realize they weren’t friends worth having. Tough lesson.

  7. from one pleaser to another – just say no! wish i would have learned this lesson decades ago. learning, though…

    • It is so hard to undo. And unfortunately, I know that kids learn from the behaviors their parents model. I do remember this when I interact with others and it has forced me to speak out a few times. But other times they have certainly witnessed me cowering and waiting. I tell them to speak up. I’ve go to do it!

  8. I love this post! I am the same way as your kids! I have always been a “people pleaser” and you are right, there are many negatives. When I was young, I remember crying on many occasions in the bathroom because I broke one of the silly rules. Being a kind hearted person isnt always a good thing.

    • Oh, I remember crying because I got sent to stand in the corner in school once. I remember feeling like I didn’t deserve it and I’m not sure that I did, but not many kindergartners are equipped to be assertive and question it. I lived. 😉

  9. Loved your post Karen! I am currently reading a wonderful book that talks about this very thing……Monkey see, monkey do, right? There are ways to help our kids learn that N-O word. And one is to watch us say it…..
    I think you are doing a great job with your kiddos…..Rock on! 🙂

    • I do a much better job now than I did as a kid. I remember the first times I stood up for myself and learned to question things, mostly in high school and college, and it was hard but I’ve come a long way. Actually, working as a cashier and dealing with the public in high school helped me learn to speak up quickly when people were rude or just wrong.

  10. A very insightful post. Exactly when did the words kind and pushover become synonyms? Teaching children how to have boundaries is just as important as teaching them to be generous, kind or honest.

  11. Well written and engaging topic. I see some elements of this in my own kids – particularly when it comes to sharing snacks at school. I have also told my older son that he has have to agree with everything his best friend does or says. He thinks it disloyal to do so.

  12. I have a hard time saying no too. I do see that in my kids already. They want to please, to make people happy. My daughter has a “friend” that she doesn’t really like playing with. I keep telling her that if she doesn’t want to play, she needs to say NO. It’s ok to say no. It’s an important lesson. I’m still learning.
    ~FringeGirl

  13. Gosh I guess I am the only non-pleaser in the house…lol! I watched my Mother, God love her, spend her whole life being a pleaser. She never said no to anyone…except me. She expected that I would follow her lead, but actually what happened was just the opposite. As I watched her trudge off to another charity dinner she didn’t want to go to one night when I was sixteen, I made a pact with myself to never say yes unless there was a yes in my heart. That doesn’t mean I don’t do for people, what it means is that if I am going to do it, I want to do it with a peaceful spirit and not complain about it. I’ve tried to raise my kids to do just that, and I think I have raised some great kids who make some wonderful choices. Now when my son refused to attend his Aunt’s wedding because he was told he could not bring a date (his girlfriend of over one year) I was angry but I supported him, because I thought he was right. Over the years I have taken a lot of flack for not being harder on my kids, but ultimately I love the choices they are making for themselves.

    • You are lucky to be able to easily do that. It’s great that you recognized it. I’m a work in progress and don’t want my kids to have this same burden. I’m trying to help them while they’re young.

  14. Over the past couple of years I’ve worked really, really hard at saying “no” and also asking for help. We can’t do it all and sometimes, frankly, there is just stuff I don’t want to do. Must I tie up every weekend just because we were invited to something. We need to say “no” and not worry about making everyone happy while sacraficing our own happy. It’s a hard thing to do. Best to help them when they’re young.

    • I’ve really started to get a handle on saying yes to things I want to do and saying no to things I really don’t want to do. Then I don’t mind the other things as much. I don’t feel spread too thin. It helps.

  15. I feel the exact same way! I feel like telling her, “You need to stand up to people more often. Just as long as it’s not me. Or a police officer. Or a burly obnoxious guy in a bar.”

  16. Another important aspect of this is standing firm to the ‘no’. When I was younger I would say no over and over to the same thing, and then eventually cave and do whatever was being asked of me. I’d rant about the injustices I felt were being done unto me, a few times I even got into verbal fights with teachers, but five minutes later I’d be crying and apologizing and falling back in line. No one will ever take you seriously if you say no and then change your mind under pressure. They will just assume that any protestation can be ignored, so its important for our children to learn to say no when they mean it, and really mean it when they say it, especially for girls/young women.

  17. I just love this, and couldn’t agree more. I am also a recovering people pleaser and I have learned to love the power of saying “no” without giving a reason. I’ve even started thinking about planning a situation where my kids and I, together, can break the rules a bit, to show them it’s ok sometimes (my son sounds like your son). I’ll let you know if I come up with anything…

    • Yeah, it’s hard sometimes to show them that some rules are just guidelines and some are hard and fast. I can’t think of any examples either but probably because I am a rule follower also! (Except for speed limits evidently.)

  18. Veronica

    Reblogged this on A Thankful Mom and commented:
    I couldn’t have said it any better.

  19. You’ve sooo hit a nerve, as I’ve been getting lovely “tardy” notices from my son’s teacher and she berates him when he is late. I tell him not to worry–he’s not the one driving the car (I am). 🙂 You’d think a woman with an education degree would have figured that out . . .

    • Sounds like a passive-aggressive way to get at you! You’re right. If it’s policy to mark him tardy, that’s one thing. Berating him for it is no excuse. She knows how to dial a phone I assume. Maybe he could say that? “You could call her.” 😉

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  21. Learning how to bend rules is a really important skill in life. I mean that very seriously. My husband, a confirmed rule-follower (except speeding), has a harder time problem-solving than I do. I broke lots and lots of rules and had to finagle my way out of trouble on a daily basis. Our son is somewhere in the middle.

    On the bathroom-break issue — I wet my pants in school. It was 2nd grade, I had just moved to town, and I did it during Show and Tell. I was bullied for the rest of elementary school. (I wrote about it here: http://fiftyfourandahalf.com/2011/10/09/comes-around/)

    That teacher should be reported. It is a form of abuse, just as if she struck the child. As you said, deal with the kids who take advantage. Or perhaps the teacher should be prohibited from going until she wets HER pants.

    This makes me sooooooooooo angry.

    • You may be onto something. I may have told a “few” lies myself at a younger time of my life. I can get myself out of a pickle pretty well. Maybe there is hope for my kids yet as we enter the teenage years. (Another reason to dread that era.)

      My kids have had some great teachers who have let children go to the bathroom whenever they need to. That’s the way it should be. Sometimes nature calls pretty frequently. Teachers should make great strides to prevent accidents like that. Kids don’t live that kind of stuff down. I’m sorry that happened to you. I read your post and you are much more forgiving than I would have been!

      • Mine was a pure accident — we were allowed to get up and go to the bathroom which was in the classroom. It was occupied. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, least of all the teacher’s. As for being forgiven, I have to look back from where I am now — and I’m pretty comfortable with that person. So everything that happened before made that happen — the good and the bad.

      • Your post shows your true colors, and unfortunately his!

  22. Lisa

    It’s partly genetic (ha, ha, ha) but they’ll learn at some point while in school. Sooner or later a friend will burn them and they’ll start setting boundaries.

  23. I think about this a lot lately with my daughter who is in kindergarten. She is a pleaser and we are trying to help her understand that you just can’t please everyone. So, more importantly, please yourself! I am too learning to say “no” to things and only get involved in what will bring happiness. I’ve always seen her as a confident if not slightly stubborn girl but that is mainly within the comfort zone of her home, out in the world, she seems to be very empathic and almost maternal with her peers. While its sweet, I worry about her getting bulldozed and changing herself to make others like her better.

    • I definitely think it’s about acceptance. As my kids get older, I worry they will want to please the wrong people. There are so many hard lessons to learn there. I know I learned them too, but I remember that in some cases I was really lucky!

      It’s hard as an adult because if you say yes to one thing, people keep coming back for more!

  24. I grew up as a people pleaser, and now that I have a 9 month old son, both my wife and I definitely don’t want him to be a pleaser as well. For me, I remember feeling worried and anxious all the time, wondering what other people will think of me. I was afraid people, from my peers to adults, won’t accept or love me if they knew who I really was underneath. I did this as a pastor’s kid.

    • I would imagine you felt a little extra pressure. It’s so hard to realize we can’t please everyone. Even now I still struggle with it. One thing that works for me is to realize that I don’t agree with everything my friends do and I like them anyway. Or I’m not friends with everyone and that’s OK too. It will wear you out to please everyone! And yes, I have felt the worry too. I think being aware helps. As your son gets older, you’ll be surprised how much of an example you’ll set for him because you don’t want him to be that way.

  25. I’ve read philosophy blogs, read a chapter of “The Happiness Project”, and tried philosophical TV shows, but nothing inspires me more than this. I know, it’s crazy, a girl who isn’t even 13 reading a parenting blog, but I’ve just always liked reading parenting stuff. :/ I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the posts like these are so inspirational and enlightening that it just sucks me in.
    Either way, this post has been so thought-provoking to me. It makes me see things differently. I, too, was a pleaser until I read this. Now, I stay up past my curfew daily. It’s better than any drug or psychologist (I am not saying I have any mental disorders or issues) could do for me. Keep up the awesome parenting. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Well, there are SOME rules that aren’t meant to be broken. 😉 From past experience, I know staying up late gives me terrible headaches. I used to like inspirational stories when I was young. I get it.

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