Is Your Child in Charge?
Before she even rolls out of bed in the morning, six-year-old Mary Beth White of Wilmington, Delaware, gives her parents their marching orders. “I want eggs for breakfast,” she announces. “I want to see what you pack in my lunch box. After school, let’s get chicken nuggets. Then let’s come home so I can change into a dress before we go to the mall.”
Her parents, Tom and Jill, have a challenge on their hands. “In a way, it’s great to have an organized kid who knows her own mind,” says Jill, who has a younger daughter as well. “Trouble is, Mary Beth will sometimes go too far. She’ll tell me what shoes to wear, or insist that I paint the dining room a different color. The other day she tried to rearrange the furniture by herself. And when she plays with friends, she has to be the star. If she doesn’t get her way, she gets angry.”
Some children are natural-born bosses. They have an innate need to make decisions, manage their environment, and lead rather than follow. Stephen Jackson, a first-grader from northern New Jersey, “operates under the theory of what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine,” says his mom, Sue. “The other day I bought two new Star Wars light sabers. Later, I saw Stephen with the two new ones while his brother was using the beat-up ones.”
“Examine the extended family, and you’ll probably find a bossy grandparent, aunt, uncle or cousin in every generation. It’s an inheritable trait,” says Russell A. Barkley, a professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and co-author of Your Defiant Child. Other children drift into dominance to fill a power void when they sense their parents are weak, ambivalent, or in disagreement with each other.
Whether it’s temperament or temper tantrum at work, too much control in the hands of the young isn’t healthy for children or the family. Fear is at the root of a lot of bossy behavior, says family psychologist John F. Taylor. Children, he says in his book From Defiance to Cooperation, “have secret feelings of weakness” and “a craving to feel safe.” It’s the parents’ role — not the child’s — to provide that security.
When a “boss child” doesn’t learn limits at home, the stage is set for a host of troubles outside the family. The overly willful, persistent, and inflexible child may have trouble obeying teachers or coaches, for example, or trouble keeping friends. It can be pretty lonely as the top dog if no one likes your domineering ways.
“I see a trend of parents abdicating their authority,” says Barkley, who has studied bossy behavior for more than 30 years. “They bend too far because they don’t want to be as strict as their own parents were. But they also feel less competent about their parenting skills. And their kids, in turn, feel more anxious.”
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How can parents regain respect and peace without being overbearing? These suggestions can help realign the balance of power.
1. Unite and Conquer. Strong-willed kids are often unusually bright, gifted and creative. Their parents need to be especially thoughtful and on their toes, ready and willing to actively manage them. Otherwise, youngsters — even toddlers — will sense an opening. “Bossy kids tend to work more on the mother,” notes Barkley. “It’s important for both parents to be mindful of their child’s trigger points, to agree on key rules, and to back each other up.”
2. Say “Yes” When You Can. Children do not learn in a stressful, angry atmosphere. Before change can take place, family feuding needs to be defused. Evaluate sources of conflict. Kids tend to dig in and act defiant when their parents over-control them, telling them exactly what to wear and eat, for example.”
Be calm and firm about fewer family rules,” suggests Barkley. “If your child wants yogurt for breakfast but you’ve made pancakes, let it go once in a while.” It’s a matter, he says, of “prioritizing the nos.”
3. Pay Attention. Studies show that demanding and defiant kids receive less affection and positive acknowledgement — and more punishment — than compliant kids. Withdrawing from a small tyrant is a parent’s natural response, but it feeds the child’s fears, resulting in more attempts at control. Kids need to experience their parents’ love in concrete ways so they’ll feel safe enough to relax.”
When I give her my full attention for at least 20 minutes a day, Mary Beth is very attuned to me,” says Jill White. “That’s when I can get her to think and compromise. Recently I told her, ‘We have a problem. You like to pick out your clothes, but I want to decide what you wear to church. What should we do?’ On her own, she suggested Mary Beth days and Mommy days.”
4. Make Respect Reciprocal. Exquisite manners are essential for family diplomacy. Modeling “please” and “thank you,” and showing a child by example how to suggest and request rather than bark orders, preserves everyone’s ego. It also builds the social skills needed to keep authority figures and friends happy.
Try asking your child to do you an easy favor. Then reward it with a hug and words such as, “Thank you. I like it when you listen to me.” Good manners and compliance will become associated with pleasure.
5. Secure Your Status. Even as you try to be attentive, respectful and accommodating — to a point — don’t surrender your parental command post. Instead, sit tall in the saddle, as one mom put it, by using body language and eye contact that tells your child who’s in charge. Also, rope off adult privileges: “That’s Daddy’s chair. Please choose another.”
Enforce rules swiftly and surely. “It’s bedtime in 30 minutes. Finish your game so we can share a story.” Refuse to engage in further debate, and simply turn off the lights at the appointed time. Bossy children can turn out to be popular, determined leaders, or unhappy, fearful loners. They look to their parents to be parents — the people who will show them how to tap their potential.
Judsen Culbreth, former editor-in-chief of “Parent & Child” and “Working Mother,” conducts workshops for parents.