I Worry About My People Pleasing Child

Written by Sonya Spillmann

My daughter and I were discussing friendship. I gently probe, trying to get at the heart of the issue. I ask questions, offer suggestions, even try role playing. Finally, exasperated, she says, “But I’m too nice to say no!”

Well. Isn’t that insightful?

My little eight year old has figured out, in her young age, in her own words, that she is a people pleaser. Sitting at the breakfast table, unassuming in our pajamas, we have struck life-lesson gold.

Like any mother does, I blame myself. I consider her natural thoughtfulness, her innate gentle and caring ways. Born small and sweet, she has always been a joy. She is a gift. But since she was little, I’ve encouraged her to think of others first. Think of their feelings, try to be nice, don’t be selfish.

I’ve encouraged her to lean into her natural tendency to defer. Because it doesn’t really matter who plays what, who sits next to whom, or who is in charge. Just enjoy being together and play with your friends! Nature and nurture synergy.

As the oldest myself, I should know better.  I have demanded too much of her and often disciplined when I didn’t get it.

When kids are little, a mom’s influence wraps around every part of her children’s lives.  When it comes to playing, we make them take turns, show them how to share, say things like Everyone gets to be the Queen! and OneTwoThree:Switch!

Eventually, thank God, they learn to play on their own.  Thrilled, we grant independence and before long, we shove them out the door and find ourselves now saying things like Work it Out! (And maybe throw in an honest I don’t Care! or Go Back Outside!)

Like letting them brush their own teeth, it’s only when the dentist calls you over to see all the food casually hanging out on their gums, you realize maybe he isn’t actually old enough to do this all by himself.  One fastidious child is reliably Up-Down-All-Arounding , while the other is actually just staring in the mirror, sucking the toothpaste off his toothbrush for two minutes, before calling it a day.  Parental supervision is still necessary.

But how does a parent teach a self-proclaimed pushover to stand up for herself with her friends? Like most mothers, I have no idea what I’m actually doing.  I start by asking her more questions.

Do you ever want to say no? Do you feel like you SHOULD say no? Do you ever wish you said no?

My mom-alarm is ringing. At eight, not saying no means she continues to be Dog every time they play Pet Shop at recess. At 15, not being able to stand up for herself has altogether different consequences.

Teenage risk taking aside, how many times, as an adult,  have I felt the cringe of wanting to say no or the panic when I actually need to say no? How many times have I heard nearly identical ‘I’m too nice to say no’ declarations from women five times her age?

More questions. Do you think only mean people say No? Do friends ever get mad at each other? Is being nice the same as being a good friend?

I don’t want my daughter assuming friendship is one sided and that she’s being a good friend by keeping up a facade.

She should never be made to feel that her opinion is unwelcome. I want her to recognize how unhealthy it is if she consistently feels a subtle but painful sting when she says no or gives her opinion. Each little sting is almost imperceptible and seemingly harmless, but all together add up to a deep, unhealthy wound to grow just under the surface of this friendship.

I want her to know it’s not her job to “fix” bold and controlling friends, young or old. But her responsibility is to identify friendships built on nothing more than the shifting sand of subjective niceties.

Accumulating unsaid No’s is destructive and dishonest. Seeming so innocuous, resentful Yes’s will betray no one but herself.

I understand I still have a roll to play in teaching and modeling this type of friendship. She has no problem saying no to me. She has no problem bossing around her brothers. Even her dad will run smack into a foot stomping no every once in a while. In the security of unconditional love, she asserts herself with ease. I want her to feel that same ease in her friendships.

Especially if that means saying No.

About the Author: Sonya is a wife, mother, ICU nurse and dreams of being a writer.  She wears her heart on her sleeve and fears being too honest will get her in trouble at church. She is a lover of laughter, coffee, red lipstick and Jesus.  She is a motherless mother who writes at spillingover.com to share herself with her kids, avoid paying for therapy, and give voice to a journey through grief, grace, and growth.  You can find Sonya at her blog Spilling Over.

About The Author


MomBabble

Mary Katherine is a southerner, born and raised. Growing up in Alabama, she developed an affinity for lightning bugs, sweet tea, playing guitar, and having strong opinions. She's happily married with a son (Nugget) and two fur babies. Fun facts: MK is a living kidney donor, speaks a little Thai, and has written two novels.

3 Comments

  1. Having good boundaries makes good relationships. And it’s a learned skill, one many adults struggle with.

    Good for you, and her, for realizing that this is a skill to work on!

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