Care and Feeding

My Daughter Is So Easygoing That It’s Become a Problem

She can set boundaries with her dolls, but not with her classmates.

A student writes at a desk and looks over their shoulder with a fearful expression.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How do you stop a kid from being, for lack of a better phrase, a pushover? My middle kid is 8-years-old and way too polite.

When her friends come over, they get to decide everything about the playdate because “they’re the guests,” but when she goes to her friends’ houses, her friends also get to decide everything about the playdate because she’s “only the guest, you know.” Kids at school boss her around or are generally rude to her, and she does what they say. If she’s on the playground and a kid tells her to get off the swings, she gets off the swings. If she’s reading a book and another kid takes the book out of her hands, she doesn’t say anything except maybe cry a little.

We’ve had numerous conversations about how it’s important to set boundaries and the power of saying no. We’ve roleplayed setting boundaries with her dolls, and it works then but not with her classmates. My daughter is also very skinny and a good head shorter than most of the rest of her classmates. My wife thinks she might be scared of her classmates physically, though I’ve had no reason to think that would be the case. Regardless, she’s being walked all over by her peers. None of it has risen to the level of bullying where it would make sense to get on the school’s case about it. We’ve had communication with the teacher about these sorts of incidents, but there’s only so much the teacher can do if our daughter isn’t advocating for herself. How can we get our daughter to stand up for herself?

—Raising a Doormat

Dear Doormat,

I was very similar to your daughter when I was her age, and I loathe the “doormat” term. Some kids are people-pleasers and tend to place the comfort of others before their own. Does that make her a pushover? I guess it depends on who you ask, but I agree that she shouldn’t allow others to mistreat her.

I’m sure you meant well with the doll roleplays, but she needs to witness someone advocating for her in the moment to make it stick. In my situation, I dealt with everything from students taking snacks out of my lunchbox to influencing me to do things that I knew would get me in trouble because I couldn’t tell them “no.” Finally my teacher saw me in tears one day, and after I told her what was bothering me, she made sure to keep a close eye on me for the rest of the week by ensuring my desk was close to hers. When she noticed classmates were taking advantage of my “politeness,” she stepped in to say, “You’re not going to do that to Doyin anymore,” or “Doyin doesn’t like that and you need to stop.” Once I witnessed that the world wouldn’t come to an end when my teacher enforced a boundary for me, I became more confident in advocating for myself. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.

Getting her teacher onboard with this is extremely important, and I would suggest scheduling a meeting to discuss something along the lines of what worked for me. Additionally, during playdates, you can reach out to her friends’ parents to ensure their kiddos are coached to ask for your daughter’s input on activities, snacks, etc. I have a feeling that kids will be open to it if they truly care about her.

Last, but not least—I don’t think it would hurt to have your daughter speak with a therapist to help uncover any underlying issues you’re unaware of. That helped me immensely and continues to help me today. But please—don’t call your kid a pushover or a doormat, because she’s doing the best she can with the resources she has available to her. This is going to be a process, but she needs adults and peers modeling the correct behavior in the moment to help her get through it.


More Advice From Slate

Before my paternal grandmother died, she would buy me an original American Girl doll every year for Christmas. I had the dolls, the books, and most of the accessories. My fondest memories of my time with my grandmother were playing with those dolls. I took very good care of them, and when I went off to college, I packed them up to be stored at my mother’s house. I have graduated and have my own place, so I went back to my mother’s to get my stored stuff.