I’m probably not in the minority of parents who think of their kids, at times, as tiny dictators. Usually it’s laughable behavior that you simply pretend to take seriously. “Yes, I know it’s so important to you to hold Mom’s wine glass, but you can’t have any because you’re nine months old.” Then, of course, there are times you should pay attention to your kid’s bossiness. It stops being cute when they’re old enough to know they’re not in charge, but insist on acting like it.
I want to define what I mean by “bossiness," though. I am not talking about when my 8-year-old daughter tells off a kid at camp who has been snapping her bathing suit straps. That’s sticking up for herself and teaching that kid about consent. I’m not talking about my 6-year-old son, voicing an opinion on how he thinks I should spend my hard-earned money (“A few dollars on food, and a thousand dollars on Pokemon cards.”). That’s just an invitation for me to explain how the world works. What I’m referring to, when I use the term “bossiness,” is behavior that doesn’t take into account other people’s feelings or opinions. It’s shutting others down, and relentlessly advocating for yourself to the point that it's detrimental to others. I’m OK with my kids wanting to be the boss, as long as they realize they’ll have to take turns doing so, but they’ve crossed a line if they get bossy with each other (or anyone else).
It’s been hard to tell, sometimes, when I should actively curtail the actions of my strong-willed children. I’ve had to figure out a set of boundaries, because I didn’t want to be jumping down their throats every time they shared (albeit in a whiny voice) an opinion that differed from mine. I’ve landed in a place that’s about empowering their confidence, but also keeping their respect for others in check.
Here are a few indicators of when I need to pay attention to my children’s bossy behavior, because I am not about to let tiny tyrants rule my roost.
When They Aren’t Being Inclusive
It’s one thing to voice your opinion on how you think a game should be played, but it’s something entirely different, and alarming, when you hear your kid dictating who should even participate in said game. I have zero tolerance for that kind of exclusive behavior. I’m not saying you have to round up every kid in the playground, but if my child is with a group or even just her brother, she has no right to shut anyone out (unless she is just seeking some alone time).
When They’re Being Rude
Sometimes it’s not what they say, but how they say it. They cop an attitude. Take a tone. Roll their eyes. It's true that actions speak louder than words, so even though my kid may be able to honestly say, “I never said anything bossy!” I can call them out on their demeanor. “How would you like it if someone else treated you in that way?” I’d ask. I take their lack of response to mean they get the message.
When They Appear To Feel Entitled
Inherent in almost any act of bossiness, is this sense of entitlement. Babies and little kids don't necessarily realize they're not the center of the universe. However, by the time they’re seven or eight, they should understand that life is a cooperative effort, not a dictatorship. It’s kind of embarrassing to watch my kid posture like everything in life should be going her way. I’m all for calling out social injustices, but bossiness that stems from a place of entitlement is creepy and wrong. My child is no more deserving of a turn on the swing than anyone else.
When Other Kids Complain
I field plenty of complaints from my kids, mostly about each other. My 6-year-old son’s chief complaint is that his older sister isn’t “letting” him do something. In other words, she’s being bossy. Simply telling him they need to work it out sets him up to fail because, well, he can’t negotiate with a tyrant. So, more often than not, I need to step in and mediate. It often involves yelling, tears, stomping and door-slamming. It’s totally my favorite thing about parenting. Not.
When They Stop Getting Invited To Playdates
Hopefully it doesn’t have to come to this, but if you’re noticing that your kid is no longer being included in peer activities, it’s time to examine their social skills. A lot of children have difficulty interacting with others and may need some help. Then, sadly, there are kids that refuse to be kind or thoughtful or inclusive and, instead, throw down bossy orders to their classmates as if they were mindless minions. These kids may think they are always right, but nobody is always right. This level of bossiness can be alienating. Defensively, the alienated kid may declare, “I don’t need any friends.” They do, though, and as parents we have to help them to become a fair and functional person in the fabric of our society. You don’t need everyone like you, but you do need to get along with people.
When It Puts Them Or Others In Danger
My third grader insisting on crossing the street solo? Nope. We’re working on that skill, but the very fact that she can’t see the potential risk in letting a small-for-her-age 8-year-old traipse across our busy Queens avenue, by herself, is reason enough to not let her. Yet. Common sense is a life skill.
When You Recognize The Words Being Used, As Your Own
I swore I wouldn’t become my mother. However, it’s her voice I hear (sometimes) when I’m laying down the law with my kids. Now, it’s my voice I hear coming out of my children’s mouth when they’re practicing being in charge (read: being bossy). It gives me pause whenever I open my mouth now. Kids are dying to grow up and be the boss, and that’s fine with me, but they can’t boss me around in my own home.
When It’s Affecting Their Relationships
My daughter experienced a seismic social shift when she entered the third grade. She would come home quite upset that an alliance she thought she had with a friend, was no more. She’d cite one particular friend who made certain demands of my daughter, or else the friendship would end. Granted, I was only hearing my kid’s side to these stories, and I can’t say I believe she was totally innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it was heartbreaking to listen to her mourn her friendship, all because this other child was bossing my kid around. I suggested to my daughter that maybe they should take a break, until the other girl learned to make things less toxic, and rein in this controlling behavior. I worried about this girl and the fact that she was manipulating her friends to the point that she would risk (or be OK with) losing them.
When They're Doing All The Talking…
Bossy kids don’t let anyone else get a word in. When a kid interrupts, I need to interrupt that behavior. It’s gotten to the point where my own kids call me out when I butt in before they are finished speaking. So I guess this tactic is working.
… And None Of the Listening
It kills me to be in meetings where someone repeats a point I had made 10 minutes earlier, as if the exact same thought just occurred to them, organically. I truly believe they are not (all of the time) cribbing my words and passing them off as their own. They just weren’t listening. Just because people aren’t talking over you, doesn’t mean they are actually hearing you. When I want my kid’s attention, I get down to their level and ask that they make eye contact with me. “Do you hear me?” I ask. “Do you understand what we’re talking about?” A kid who is doing all of the talking has no chance to hear anyone else. It is disrespectful and makes it impossible to find a compromise when kids are squabbling. I make the effort to really listen to my kids, so they know it’s a behavior they have to reciprocate.
When You Realize It’s Reflecting Your Own Behavior
Aside from the words being used, it’s the whole attitude of “bossiness” that deserves some rumination. Often, when my short fuse is blown and I have no more patience with my kids after a full work day, I don’t use the best judgment in dealing with them. When I remember, I retreat into the bathroom and lock the door for a few minutes until the storm inside me blows over and I know I can go back out there with a calm demeanor. However, when I can’t muster that discipline, I usually shout, “Because I’m the mom!” I’m basically wielding my authority over them, not like a boss but just as a bossy person. When I catch my kids pretending they’ve been elected Supreme Ruler of the Universe, it’s time for a little self-reflection.