“What’s so hard about saying you’d like a different classroom teacher for Sam?” asked Tom.
“Oh, I just know that they’ll say ‘no.’ Anyway the school knows what’s best for him,” replied Karen. More than likely, Tom is thinking, “What’s the big deal?” And Karen is thinking, “I don’t want to be a pushy mom.”
Gender differences in making requests are apparent from an early age. Boys have a greater ability than girls do to state their needs. Boys are more direct than girls are. Possibly these differences are hard-wired into male and female brains. Certainly there are cultural dissimilarities in the way that boys and girls are raised that enhance the differences.
Traditionally girls have learned to be indirect and manipulative in asking for what they want. Boys have learned that they have a right to ask in having their needs met. As a result of the women’s movement, assertiveness training for both men and women, articles in magazines focusing on communication skills, and required communication classes offered through colleges and universities, both genders are learning to exchange thoughts more effectively. Women and girls are learning to clearly and directly ask for what they want. Men and boys are learning to make requests in non-threatening ways.
It is interesting to watch the interactions of girls and boys. While there are personality differences, it is not uncommon to see a female approach a situation coyly and start a request indirectly with the phrase, “I wish.” She might say to a group of children, “I wish I could play that game.” She might say to her mother, “I wish I had those Sponge Bob socks.” A male usually does it differently. He may walk up to a group of children and simply join in the game. Or he may approach the group and loudly say, “I want to play, too.” In a store he might pick up the Sponge Bob socks, carry them to his mom and say, “I want these,” or “Can I have these?”
When a request is directly made the worst that can happen is the answer will be “no.” While that is not what we had hoped to hear and may feel disappointed, we know that our request has been understood. When an indirect request is make, a number of things happen. None feel good.
The request may not be understood as intended. A wish may be perceived as just that. “I wish I could play” does not say, “I want to play.” When a wish is not responded to as a request, there is disappointment and also resentment. The one making the request feels misunderstood and rejected as a person. She also feels unheard. The feeling is, “Nobody listens to what I’m saying.”
Both boys and girls need to learn to ask directly and appropriately for what they want and need. A line from an old Rolling Stone song says, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find that you get what you need.” If we hold back and don’t attempt to directly ask for what we want, we’re apt to not get it at all. When we are direct in our requests, we often get them met. When we don’t get what we thought we wanted, we may get something better, more suited to us, or for our greater growth.
Three strategies assist both males and females to communicate their desires and needs directly. You, as parents, can model them for your children.
Boys may make their wants known in a voice that is too loud. When they want a toy that a peer is playing with, they may say in a belligerent voice, “Give me that.” With his parents, he may say, “I don’t want those carrots.”
Girls, on the other hand, may use a voice that is too quiet, coy or whiny. They might approach a peer and say in a tiny voice, “You’ve had too long a turn.” With her parents she may look at the carrots, whine, and say, “These carrots are yucky.”
In both cases a different skill needs to be learned. Adults and children alike become annoyed with unappealing voices. Children need to learn that people of all ages listen better when a request is made with a calm, direct tone. You can teach this skill by saying, “I would like you to use a voice like this (use a composed, straightforward tone), and say, ‘May I have the toy?’ or ‘I’d like my turn with the toy.’” Practice this together. When they approach you with an inappropriate voice, say, “Try a different way.” Children learn quickly how to do this and usually there is carry-over to a variety of situations.
Teach your children a script to use when making requests. “When you don’t want to eat something I’ve served you could say, ‘I don’t like these carrots, and I don’t want to eat them.’ When you want something a friend has try, ‘I’d like a turn with the toy.’”
When boys are afraid of not getting what they want, a situation may be approached in a confrontational way. Perhaps they barge in like a bull in a china shop, or swagger with a tough-guy look. Then, in too loud a voice, make their request.
By contrast, girls may use words only as a last resort imagining that body language alone will serve as the request. A little girl might approach a situation, stand, twist her body back and forth, look longingly at what she wants, and finally make her request in a small voice.
Both boys and girls need to learn that straightforward, age-appropriate body posture gains the best results. One should model walking up to a situation with a normal gate, standing straight and tall, and making the request.
As parents, we need to exhibit how to make appropriate requests in our daily interactions. Our children learn from us how to live effectively in the world. Boys observe from dads that being calm and using a controlled voice often gets their requests met. Others respond positively when they feel respected. Girls perceive from moms that using an assertive voice and posture while directly asking for what they want often gets their needs met. They feel more empowered as individuals because others are not relied upon to make assumptions or to guess what they want.
Asking for what we want is our right. Asking, however, does not mean that we always get what we ask for. It does mean that when we make our requests in a calm, straightforward voice, use direct and respectful words, and approach situations with appropriate body language, we often get our requests met. More importantly, we leave ourselves and the other person feeling good and filled with integrity.