Steer the play away from "bossy"
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
First Published on, January 20, 2011

Our daughter is 4 ½ years old and we’re running into social issues with her. She is not shy, and easily “makes friends” at playgrounds, beaches, etc. However, she is very independent and recently has become very controlling. We’ve watched over the past 2 to 3 months as during play time (even with mom or dad) she tells us what to play, what not to play, and generally barks out orders. She does this with her playdates as well, and while she knows that she needs to share her toys, she has taken that to mean that she will pick the toy the friend can play with and that’s the end of it. We’ve gently tried to explain that if she doesn’t let her friends make their own choices, they will no longer want to play with her. However, I don’t want to damage her self-esteem and make her believe that she is mean. Yesterday, we watched as she basically reduced her 1.5-year-older friend, who is also strong-willed, to tears because she wouldn’t let her play anything that the friend wanted to play.

She can be very sweet and friendly, but this bossy behavior is taking over, and I don’t want it to become a permanent part of her personality. How do we steer her in the right direction without creating a complex?

From: Lisa, Natick

Hi Lisa,

What you're describing as bossy is really age-appropriate behavior. Child development educators would more likely describe it as ego-centric. In fact, that's just what Nancy Carlsson-Paige said when I consulted with her about your email. Here's part of our conversation:

Nancy: She's only been on the planet four years! She’s seeing every problem from her point of view because she's not capable yet of looking at any situation from an alternative perspective.

Barbara: So it's expecting too much of her....

Nancy: Right! She's just being 4. The parents are worried -- we all worry! -- they're projecting that she's going to be a bossy, controlling, obnoxious person. But this little girl just thinks everyone sees the world as she does.

Barbara: Sounds like she also has a strong personality. That's a factor.

Nancy: Sure. So I'm guessing when then play with her, she barks out the orders -- or at least that's how it feels -- and they do what she says. Instead, it's up to the parents to help her see that other people don't see the world the same way she does. I have a very assertive 4-year-old granddaughter. I definitely push her in this direction.

Barbara: For instance?

Nancy: You let her know you want to play but that you have some ideas of your own: ''Gee, OK, we could play princess, but I don't want to be the servant. I want to be a princess, too.''

Barbara: ''But there's only one princess!''

Nancy: ''I can be a princess, too! We can be sister princesses! We can be best friend princesses! Let's try it with two!''

Nancy: You show her in a gentle, kind way that there are other ways to play with her idea. You are showing her something she doesn't know. By not following her orders, your gift to her is to de-center.

Barbara: ...To expand her view of the world.

Nancy: Now if this were a playmate and the mother could see she was on the verge of tears, I would intervene in a neutral way: ''Sarah, you want to play princess, and Maya, you want to play house. What can we do about this? You each have a different idea. What can you play so that you will both feel happy?'' Then give them a chance to come up with their own ideas to resolve their own conflict.

Barbara: Like, princess in the house.

Nancy: Or, playing one game first and then the other. Or a new game altogether. Mermaid. You might have to give them some ideas. The point is to show them play isn't just about following orders. Over time, it's this give and take in play that expands a child's repertoire and leads to compassion and empathy.

Barbara: This speaks directly to the parent's concern.

Nancy: Yes. Kids this age are concrete, in the moment, here and now. When a parent says, "Friends won't want to play with you if you're bossy..."

Barbara: They might as well be speaking a different language.

Nancy: In fact, they are! She doesn't have a clue. What she understands much better is the intervention, whether they are playing with her or a friend is, because that's problem solving in the moment.