It’s a bit embarrassing when someone describes your kids in ways that are less than complimentary, isn’t it?
“She really tells the other kids what to do, doesn’t she? A right little bossy boots!”
You instantly feel the need to justify your child’s behavior, but later you wonder…
You wonder if your child really IS bossy.
You wonder about your parenting techniques and if you’re on the right track.
You wonder if you ought to be doing something when you see your child being assertive the next time.
My own daughter is strong willed and opinionated, and I wonder.
I watched her this morning, telling her younger sister what to do. She bossed her about mercilessly, all morning. The younger one took it very well, and largely did her sister’s bidding. But eventually she got sick of it, and grew mutinous. It’s then that the Boss’ behavior deteriorated, and she became rude and disrespectful.
That’s when my blood started to boil.
I don’t want domineering children, but I don’t want to squash their spirits, either. I want them to know it’s ok to have an opinion and be strong-willed.
But, in spite of myself, I almost labeled my daughter as bossy. I stopped myself in the nick of time — “bossy” is a lousy label to carry around.
As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says, words like bossy send a message: it’s not ‘right’ to ask for what you want. It’s selfish. When we label behavior in this way, our children believe that behavior is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. Their self-esteem wears away, and their confidence slowly dies.
That’s not what we want.
As quoted in the Yahoo article “Since when did obedience become the epitome of good parenting?“, Alfie Kohn, the author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason says that when he asks parents what their long-term goals are for their children, “No-one ever says mindlessly compliant.”
So how do we strike that balance as parents?
How do we teach our kids to express themselves without being bossy?
The answer is to help them to state their feelings in a way that is polite and courteous. Here are some things that I find helpful with my strong-willed daughter –
#1 Understand the difference between ‘bossy’ and ‘assertive’
The words ‘bossy’ and ‘assertive’ are similar, and many people use the two words interchangeably. The difference between the two is small, but significant.
The oxford dictionary defines ‘bossy’ as
Fond of giving people orders; domineering.
Whereas, they define ‘assertive’ as
Having or showing a confident and forceful personality.
It’s that subtle difference that makes one an unflattering label and the other an admirable character trait.
Just this morning I heard “No! Don’t do that! Don’t touch my stuff or I’ll …”
I called my nine-year old over, and she glowered at me.
“What? She was touching my stuff without asking! She always does that, and it’s not right! I shouldn’t have to put up with it!”
I told her she was right. She didn’t have to put up with her sister touching her things without asking.
I told her it was OK to say what she wanted, but that she needed to think about how she was saying it.
Although I didn’t use the words ‘bossy’ or ‘assertive’, I did explain the key difference between the two ways she could tell her sister not to touch her stuff.
It takes time and repetition, but we need to help our kids see the difference and consider other people’s feelings while stating your own perspective.
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#2 Be a model citizen
Kids learn more from how we behave than from what we say.
“Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.” says Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
We all know this at some level. Yet our actions are sometimes not in line with how we ask our kids to behave.
Consider this for example –
Your best friend is staying with you for a bit. She know you well, and she knows your house rules. One of your rules is no feet on the coffee table.
One day you walk in and find your friend relaxing on the sofa … with her feet on the coffee table!
What do you say? How do you behave?
Now consider how you’d behave if you walked in and found your kids relaxing on the sofa, with their feet on the table.
If you’re anything like me, the response is going to be very different. I’m unlikely to rant at my friend “You KNOW we don’t do that around here!”.
I won’t roll out the “I’ve told you a hundred times not to do that” line.
I’m more likely to be calm and reasonable. I’ll state my case with consideration for my friends’ feelings.
Why not give our kids the same consideration? Try treating them like a BFF and see the difference.
When I spoke to my daughter this morning, I said, “I’m not angry, and I’m not telling you what to do. I’m asking you to think about your sister’s feelings when you ask for what you want.”
Now, I’m not saying the whole situation was perfect, or that it won’t happen again. (I’m not that deluded!)
I do believe that demonstrating the assertive behavior I’d like her to display was very powerful. I showed her how to get her thoughts and feelings across in a way that was respectful of other people’s feelings. I demonstrated assertiveness, rather than being ‘bossy’ and telling her what to do.
#3 Translate the talk in a way they can understand
The difference between ‘bossy’ and ‘assertive’ is challenging enough for adults to grasp. It’s almost impossible for kids to get.
So instead of talking to them about the concepts, teach the behavior to them in ways they can easily understand.
Here’s a few techniques that I like to use:
Practice makes perfect is, as the name suggests, simply practicing doing the right thing.
Your children take it in turns pretending they’re talking to their best friend or favourite star, on the phone.
You can make this more real by actually calling someone they know, and letting them chat on the phone.
Your children practice using their telephone manners during the call.
Playing a star role (or role-playing) is a powerful way of changing our behavior. That’s why we do things like fire drills – it reinforces behavior.
You can use role-play to reinforce scenarios where you’d like your kids to show good manners and courtesy.
Pretend you’re having tea with someone important. Depending on your children, this may be Dorothy the Dinosaur, Paddington, or Justin Bieber (maybe all three?)
Set the table appropriately and demonstrate to each other how you’d behave. You could even take it in turns to dress up as the ‘star’ guest.
A spoonful of medicine can come in handy when you’re role-playing.
While your child is pretending to talk on the phone, for example, you can interrupt so they know what it’s like. (Isn’t revenge sweet?)
Then you role-play what good behavior looks like in this scenario.
You can also ask, “Would you like me to speak to you like that?” or “How do you like people to speak to you?”
The Interrupt Rule is fantastic because it lets children know you’ve heard them, without actually interrupting. It’s respectful to both parties.
Here’s how it works.
You’re in conversation and your child needs your attention. Instead of calling out, they simply come up to you and put their hand on your arm.
They keep their hand on your arm so that you know they need you.
You cover their hand with yours, so your child knows you’ve ‘heard’ them.
When it’s appropriate, you can turn around and ask them what they need.
This rule is simple enough for even very young children to learn, and very effective.
Play it again, Sam is something I use at home when I don’t like what I hear.
I say “how could you say that in a kinder way?” or “how else could you ask for that?”
I ask the child to restate their intentions in a different way.
When I spoke to my daughter this morning, I asked her, “How do you like people to speak to you?”
I told her that the way she behaves with other people teaches them how she wants to be treated.
If she’s kind, she’s telling people to treat her kindly. If she’s angry or shouting, she’s teaching other people to shout at her.
#4 Keep it fun (AKA ask to be ex-squeezed)
This morning, when I was speaking to my daughter about her behavior, I was in mid-sentence when she suddenly asked “Can I go now?!”
I was clearly boring her. I should have remembered to golden rule: keep it fun.
Manners, and other life lessons, can be pretty boring. Sometimes you need some light-hearted ways to teach this stuff. Mixing a bit of fun into the lesson makes life a lot easier.
When my younger daughter was about three, she got her words discombooberated (yes, this IS a word, at least in our house).
She finished her meal and asked “May I please be ex-squeezed”.
The situation was so funny and endearing that the ritual has stuck. We now ask to be ex-squeezed from the table, and then have a squeezey cuddle with mom or dad.
As an aside, visitors have almost fallen off their chairs when our children ask to be excused from the table.
Even more impressed were the parents who’s kids came to visit, and went home and started asking “May I be excused?” at the end of a meal. They thought we were SUCH a good influence!
Ex-squeeze me, while I grab my halo off the floor… 🙂
The key is to make manners, politeness, courtesy and all these other big words fun for kids to learn.
At the end of the day, remember that your children are growing and changing all the time. Whatever behavior they’re demonstrating now, it’s likely it will change.
The best thing you can do is to encourage that change to be positive. Fostering strong willed children can be tricky, but working with a child is much easier than working against them.
You want your children to have opinions, and express themselves when they’re adults. You want them to keep striving to be a better version of themselves, just as you continually strive to be a better parent. You want the best for your kids. You want them to get the most out of life. You want them to be able to negotiate – to get what they want, but without hurting other people.
So please, teach them how to ask for what they want — in a respectful way.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a few minutes to consider your behavior with your family.
- We all have moments when we’re rushing to be somewhere, no matter how hard we try. Leaving these times aside, when was the last time you said please and thank you to your family?
- Think about what you say and do when you need your children to do something. Do you demonstrate assertive behavior, or does a little bit of bossy sneak in?
- How differently do you treat your children to your friends when they exhibit similar behavior?
- When you’re trying to get what you want, do you value good manners or focus on the outcome? Your children will pick up these underlying values, no matter how well hidden you think they are.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Talk to you kids about the interrupt rule and see how it works for you. Try role-playing the rule in action so everyone gets a chance to use it.
Focus on improving manners and courtesy within your house by nominating a Manners Month. During the month you can read books and sing songs about manners, and come up with ways to make manners fun.
Keep the idea of being BFFs in your mind. Remember that you don’t want your child to grow up to be mindlessly compliant when they’re older, so it doesn’t make sense to expect that compliance now. Treating your children in a similar way to your friends will help them grow into the independent and self-reliant people they’ll become as adults.