I was going to title this post only “Age Three…” but then I realized that my 4-yr old still struggles with bossiness but a little less because we’ve been working on it for a year!
Bossiness is inherent to the preschool age. It kicks in for a variety of reasons, linguistic and social. For one, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they have probably been bossed around by us parents for three/four years already—they have good models!
But unfortunately, there is really no way of avoiding the modeling. You can’t simply stop telling your child what to do (or not do) just because they’re picking up your example. You can change the way you do it so you’re not in drill sergeant mode all the time, but you are going to have to direct more than you want to. Parents know more than their children and need to “mother hen” them when they’re little because young children have little knowledge and even less ability to govern themselves with safety and decorum. Your two-year old has developed enough to balk at your instructions, but she doesn’t really have any recourse to avoid them. Nor can she explain to you that she’s having a tough time; she can’t sublimate any resentment she feels into anything more constructive than a tantrum.
Your three year old, however, has become more resourceful. Compared to your two-year old, he or she is less resentful and has now simply incorporated telling people what to do as part of their worldview: it is normal, natural, part of the way the world works. So they do it too. They can’t understand others do but they shouldn’t, or why in some contexts it’s ok for them to do but in many others it’s not. They aren’t trying to be tyrants, usually, as much as they are incorporating bossiness as the way people communicate. Your job is to shift this, or expand this repertoire.
Another thing is, bossing others around feels good. They get more of what they want, and they know what they want even more than they did when they were two. This is not a bad thing in itself. They can express their desires better linguistically and they soon figure out that articulating what should be done is practical and expedient: simply, it works! At times when they’re bored, they tell their parents what to get them. If they need stimulation, they just order a little sibling around. At times when they are anxious or upset, they boss around their toys (or a pet!). It helps them feel better and it is fun.
So as a parent, what should you do? Should you give up and just accept that preschoolers are bossy? Not entirely. Recognize it is normal and that to some extent it can’t be avoided or snapped out of. Five year olds are generally less bossy because they feel more introspection and therefore less focused on exterior control, and because they are smart enough to get their needs met themselves or figure out something to do that’s more pleasing or constructive, or experienced enough to know that they will get in trouble if they keep giving orders! Or their friends will abandon them. But a three and four year old generally doesn’t have this cognitive capacity. They are in the process of breaking into the social world. They don’t know they are being rude or that the consequences of being rude are real and hurtful.
So it is your job to teach them as gently as possible. Moralizing usually doesn’t work for the reasons I stated above. Telling them that no-one will like them if they are bossy has less effect than simply teaching them how to replace bossy language for submissive language, and correcting/disciplining them if they continue to forget. You could create a Bossy Chair or a Bossy Jar or a Bossy Punishment, but don’t rely on your 3 or even 4 year old to be internally moved by the ways of life yet. And definitely don’t depend on them to feel bad that you are angry or upset! We explain (calmly) to our preschoolers that what they said was rude and made Mommy upset, and we also explain that if the continue to use those words that they may make their friends or siblings mad. But giving loss of love or inculcating fear into a preschooler is not a good correcting technique; it causes either shame or bitterness. Save such explanations for times when you are calm and instructional, separate from giving consequences.
One thing that I have found helpful in our house is to get down on them with their level and teach them about bossiness by playing with them. Have some playtime where you simple model submissive behavior/language with them. A good model is indispensable, especially if you can point out what you’re thinking and doing in a non-threatening way. (“See how I really want you to move your truck? So I say, “Johnny, can you move it please? I want to get past.”) Then have other playtimes that are more direct where you get into rewording what they say when they tell you things in a bossy way. (“No, not ‘Move it!’ You mean, ‘Mommy, can you please move over there? Thanks.'”) Don’t get angry or take it personally. Just say what you want them to say and ask them to echo you. Every now and then, like once or twice a lesson, do something bossy to them and see how they react. Ask them if they feel sad or mad and explain that that’s why we don’t tell people what to do or order them around. Tell them you are sorry for giving orders and model the appropriate behavior you want them to do when they are apologizing. Don’t pretend you didn’t know what you were doing, but draw attention to it and explain you are trying to teach them the Golden Rule.
You can use the rewording technique in many other situations that come up in your daily routine, but a special playtime is helpful because you can spend extended teaching time with your child in an activity they like. Or you can get their toys to talk to one another, if working directly with your child is not working.
Sometimes separating siblings is a good idea too. If you find that one sibling pair is destined for a dictator-slave relationship, separate them at least occasionally while you are working with the dictator. Teach the slave how to speak up too, if possible, and make sure they know that Mommy is the boss of them, not the sibling. Help all your children know that bossiness is not cute. It isn’t something that younger or older siblings should bend to, but that they should continue to respect the bossy one by courteously asserting boundaries. (“No thanks, I don’t want to right now.”)
Start teaching about manners and politeness if you haven’t already. Even requiring Please and Thank You can go a long way in teaching a child submission. Start pointing out (lovingly) when they are being bossy so they can catch themselves doing it and offer them an alternative. If they can’t take the alternative, they need a fitting consequence. (“If you can’t let your brother do what he wants with the legos, then you’re going to have to choose something else.”) And if there is an actual problem, make sure you deal with it before you correct the bossiness so the child feels heard; bossy children need respect too. (“Oh, I didn’t realize your sister was not sharing her dolls with you. Maybe we should get you something different, ok?… Ok. Make sure you don’t yell at her when she’s not doing what you want.”)
Also, pick a terminology that you can stick with when working on this problem. There are all kinds of words that come up when dealing with bossiness: bossy, control, respect, obey, polite, manners, nice, kind, ordering, telling what to do, making, forcing, in charge, etc. If you get the sense your child understands one phrase (like being the boss of you), use that. If not, do some teaching. Sometimes when I talk to my three year old about it I’ll say something like, “Honey, you’re giving your brother the blocks you want him to have. That’s being bossy. Don’t be bossy. You should let him pick his own blocks. That’s a nice thing.” Or I might say, “Honey, you’re telling your brother what to say. That’s being bossy. Don’t be bossy. Tell him, “You can say whatever you want, David.” and I’d wait for the bossy one to say it. The point is, even if the terminology doesn’t exactly fit right, it keeps the learning consistent: don’t be bossy, be nice. Then when you call down the stairs, “Hey, you can play with your sister but be sure you’re playing “nice…” they at least have some idea of what “nice” means. If you correct your child differently all the time, they may feel like you are nagging on them about everything instead of just trying to correct the same one thing.
Overall, just stick with it. Your corrections will pay off in the end. Don’t expect them to change overnight, or even in a year. But do expect to see progress. One sign you know you are making progress is if they are able to spot being bossy in others. They might tell you or a sibling, “Mommy, Daddy is being bossy.” or some other cute thing. Don’t justify it to them right then or they might get confused—be glad they got the concept. If you have to, say, “It’s ok for Daddy to be bossy right now. He’s in charge.” If you aren’t seeing progress on the bossiness scene over six months, you need to change techniques or perhaps lay down more consequences for transgression. Or maybe you should examine their influences to see if you, a friend, a beloved cartoon character, or someone really is being too bossy and working against their conscience. But in general, you should see your child continuing to move in the right direction if you kindly and consistently confront the Bossy Monster.