Your preschooler is at it again: negotiating a bigger dessert, telling other kids how to play a game and refusing to do things someone else’s way.
Though you might feel like you’ve got a little dictator on your hands, take heart. What you have is a child with a take-charge type of personality, and you’re not alone.
Around age 4, many kids experiment with power and ways they might be able to influence the people around them. But combine this with a kid who has a particular fondness for making up the rules, and parents have their work cut out for them.
“Some kids have a stronger desire to be the one to make the decisions,” says Jan Faull, M.Ed., a local child development specialist and author of Mommy! I Have to Go Potty! and Unplugging Power Struggles: Resolving Emotional Battles with Your Kids, Ages 2 to 10. “Parents may look at this and worry that their child will be considered bossy. But I tell parents it’s a good personality characteristic. We need leaders in the world, and these children are natural leaders.”
Effectively parenting a child with this personality type requires patience and consistency. Relinquish power and give the child choices where you can, but remember: You’re the adult who makes the final decisions, says Faull. “If you have a 5-year-old who’s running the household, that’s a very scary position for that child to be in. A child wants to know boundaries.”
Listen to your child to make sure she knows her ideas will always be heard, considered and respected, Faull advises. Allow your child to make some choices and compromise on others. That way, the child gets some of what she would like.
When a situation is nonnegotiable (“No candy before dinner!”), explain, “We have to do this Mom’s way,” suggests Faull. Don’t debate the point or a get into a shouting match. “What you don’t want to do is engage the child in an argument or change your mind after you’ve made your decision.”
Resist ‘giving in’
Jamie Psaradelis, a longtime preschool teacher at Lynnwood Parks and Recreation, says she’s known some persuasive children who relentlessly argue their point. “It’s important for adults to be patient—and understand that it’s OK for the child to cry or feel sad or angry when they don’t get their way,” she says.
And if the adult gives in? “It sets up a situation that will make it a lot harder the next time,” says Psaradelis. “These kids are very smart. They know when crying and yelling and negotiating work, and they will keep using it.” Parents should sit with the child in a quiet, safe place until the kids are able to calm down, rejoin the group or resume their activity, says Psaradelis.
Being a preschooler with a forceful personality isn’t all bad, says Psaradelis. “When they’re comfortable being the leader, they build their self-confidence. They learn that they can be good thinkers and problem-solvers. And when one child in the group is a strong leader, it encourages the other, more reserved children to find their voice, too.”
The best news? These bossy kids often turn into great adults, says Faull. That’s assuming their parents can weather the constant boundary pushing and the endless negotiations. Since the key to parenting this type of personality is keeping cool and avoiding power struggles, Faull recommends parents take regular breaks from their children, seek good advice from friends and family, and get counseling if they need help.
Leah Crawford, a Lynnwood mother of three with a take-charge 4-year-old daughter, agrees. “I have to learn to pick my battles. It’s very difficult,” she says. To help, Crawford hires a baby-sitter to watch her children three hours a day, three times a week. “Getting time to yourself and out of the house allows you to recharge so you can have more patience and deal with difficult situations better,” she says.
Katie Amodei is a Puget Sound–based freelance writer, public relations consultant and mother of two.