Preschoolers love to say, “You’re not the boss of me!” Yet many of them sure love to boss around everyone else. Bossy behavior—issuing orders and demands, dictating play scenes, insisting on having things their way—often rears its pointed finger and loud voice around 3 and, unchecked, can continue into the early school years.
For sure, a little assertiveness, confidence, and spirit are worth cultivating in every child. They’re traits of leadership and a healthy self-concept that will take a kid far in life. But a future leader is one thing. A future tyrant is another story. Behaving in ways that are inappropriate to the situation and the company is just rude.
It’s not just adults who don’t like to see it. A bossypants’s social prospects with friends won’t be so great either.
WHY it happens:
At first, preschoolers are copying us. Not that we adults are tyrannical drill sergeants. But 3’s are savvy enough to notice that grown-ups get to tell others (them!) what to do all day—so they want some of that! Once they realize they can tell Mama or a friend what to do—and it happens—they get a rush. Mr. or Ms. “You Are Not the Boss of Me” likes to be in charge, for a change.
Sometimes kids who are bright and verbal, or slightly older than playmates or siblings, become bossy. Developmentally out of sync, they get used to making the decisions and leading the way—a play style that can ossify into being overbearing.
So to some extent bossy behavior is developmentally normal. And yes—it can even be pretty funny to watch your three-footer waggle a finger and try to order the cat (or Papa) out of a favorite chair. The kid’s got gumption! The trouble is that it can easily devolve into habit.
The goal is to steer this strong-but-wrong behavior onto a more civilized path.
- Hard but important: Don’t laugh. Doing so gives a negative behavior positive power. No matter what your words say, your body language is sending a stronger signal that you really don’t mind.
- Avoid responding to orders—ever. Instead, prompt better behavior by saying, “Ask nicely, and I’ll be happy to do that.”
- Matter-of-factly replay the scene, supplying the right words: Some kids don’t quite realize what they’re doing. Model it: “We don’t say, “GET MY SNACK!” We say, “Mama, I’m hungry. May I have my snack now please?”
- Reinforce basic manners by insisting on saying “please” and “thank you” all the time (not just when you’re correcting bossiness). What helps: Use those words yourself all the time. It’s nearly impossible for parents not to issue commands in the line of duty (“Put your shoes on! Wash your hands!”). But whoops, doing it all day long is basically modeling bossiness.
- If your child dominates play with friends, do a little coaching beforehand. Remind your child to try to remember sharing and turn-taking. Offer some things he or she can say, like asking, “What do you want to play?” and “Can I trade you that toy for another one?” Explain that friends have the right to say “no”—they don’t have to go along with everything. Learning how to play together is a process nearly all kids struggle with at 3 and 4. It’s not until closer to 5 that they get good at reading others’ feelings and using that feedback to guide their own behavior.
- Make sure there’s wiggle room for choices in a bossy kid’s life. When you can easily say “yes” to something (by offering a choice of two snacks or outfits you’re fine with, for example) it sidesteps a power struggle because it feeds that hunger your child has to exert some control.
- Put your child in charge in specific situations. Helping with chores or playing with a baby lets a preschooler feel “big” in appropriate ways. Praise for being responsible, helpful, and polite—the opposite of bossy—works really well in combination with not responding to tyrannical behavior.
- Try playing cooperative games as well as competitive ones. Competition can fan bossyitis in a child who’s prone to it. All preschoolers benefit from a little practice working together. It’s also good to have practice in not getting your way and learning to be a graceful loser.
The payoff: a worrisome trait turned into a positive
It can be exasperating to live with a kid who’s strong-willed, assertive, decisive, and take-charge. But there’s a silver lining: These kids make popular playmates and promising go-getters, once they learn how to take the mean edge off.
Photo: Arwen Abenstern – KWP/Flickr