I couldn’t help but cringe when I heard those words emerge from my six-year-old’s mouth. My daughter Maia has pretty decent manners, but since she started first grade there’s been a change in her behaviour. While she used to treat other people with respect, she’s recently begun bossing and scolding her classmates — and me.
Most of us expect the surge of independence that comes when our kids turn two and again when they hit adolescence. But for some children, being in school can also result in the surfacing of new, dictatorial behaviour. Lyle Grant, a professor of psychology at Alberta’s Athabasca University, explains that bossy behaviour happens “when kids realize there’s a connection between being obstinate and getting what they want.” Grant says, “Kids who act bossy have learned they have the ability to manipulate others and change their social environment.”
Cheryl Coleman of Pincourt, Que., says this is what happened with her seven-year-old daughter, Lori. “The change was really abrupt. Lori hit six and it was, “Where did this child come from?” Coleman says a teacher told her that Lori was in trouble for bossing around a classmate. “She was telling this little boy everything he was or wasn’t allowed to do. And she wasn’t doing it nicely.”
Coleman’s solution was to explain to her daughter how her actions might make her friend feel. She reminded Lori that she wouldn’t want to be treated in the same manner. “Being assertive is a really great skill and I want her to have opinions,” Coleman says, “but she needs to learn to do it with respect.”
Grant agrees, and points out that while the roots of assertiveness are found in bossy behaviour, the roots of bullying are found there too. The goal, he says, is to temper the aggressive behaviour and help your child to learn the skills to be appropriately assertive. “The best way for parents to do this is to model the behaviour themselves,” he explains.
The first step in easing bossy behaviour is to identify it for your child. Grant suggests you need to clearly and consistently point out the problem behaviour — keeping in mind not to embarrass her in front of people — and explain the likely outcome. “A child needs to know that her friends won’t want to play if she’s constantly nagging them.” Grant then suggests catching your child being good by letting her know when she has interacted in an assertive but non-aggressive way. He says for many kids this will be enough, and they’ll gradually learn how to stand up for themselves without stepping on others.
Sometimes kids may need more guidance, though. Grant says one good way to help them suppress their inner tyrant is by using rewards. “You can reward them after a day, an hour or even a few minutes of positive interactions — depending on how much they need to learn.”
I know this has been my biggest problem. The first time Maia ordered me around, with her hands on her hips and a frown on her cute freckled face, I giggled and then complied, thinking it was sort of cute. These days, though, I’m teaching her how to replace harsh words with more respectful, polite ones. Hopefully it will work. Otherwise, we may be on the lookout for some country somewhere that needs a new dictator.
Diane Selkirk’s mom says her daughter was a bossy six-year-old, but with patience and a few reminders Diane grew into a less bossy adult.