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Daycare pickup used to be the best part of my day. When my girls were infants and toddlers, they’d drop everything they were doing at the sight of me and run—or bum scooch—into my arms, eager to be whisked away. Now that they’re five and three, I still get those hugs, but what follows is an endless power struggle. When I ask them to put on their coats, they start running around in circles, rolling on the carpet or emptying out and organizing the entire contents of their backpacks. On calmer days, they give long-winded monologues about the drama of their day or drag out personal goodbyes to dozens of friends.
The daycare teachers are sympathetic. They say little kids get a kick out of bossing around their parents, especially moms. But honestly, it’s frustrating. My girls and I have a great relationship—I’m the one they call for when they wake up in the morning or cry to when they get hurt. They want me to read to them, sing lullabies and tuck them into bed. But I’m not naturally assertive, and this extends to my parenting. When it comes to daycare pickups or any other necessary caretaking tasks, they sniff out my weakness and steamroll me.
I know I’m not alone. If you ask child psychologists and development experts, children are becoming more dominating than ever. They’re bossy, demanding, insatiable and defiant. Sometimes it seems funny or charming. I look at my girls and think they’re like feisty little honey badgers. They’re leaders, not followers. I see a confidence in them I only wish I had, and I want that to flourish. But other times, I’m actually a little afraid. Am I cut out to parent my headstrong kids when they don’t even take me seriously?
Deborah MacNamara, a Vancouver-based developmental science expert, clinical counsellor and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), says 75 percent of her counselling practice deals with what she calls the “alpha complex”—a dynamic in which the normal relationship between a parent and child becomes reversed, and the kid instinctively feels they need to take charge. It explains a lot about my alpha girls and perhaps even more about me, admittedly a solid beta.
MacNamara’s not talking about kids who are just strong-willed. These are kids who are characteristically more challenging. They tell you when they want to go to bed, what they want for dinner, and sometimes they even tell you how to discipline them by negotiating consequences for bad behaviour. My eldest will sometimes count to three so we can both apologize at the same time.
MacNamara says some of the increase in the number of families in which kids are calling the shots has to do with a move toward anti-hierarchical parenting. In some ways, it’s not surprising that kids feel they have power to pull—in modern parenting, many of us tend to be democratic and put our kids’ feelings at the forefront. We want to foster their autonomy and individuality.
The problem is, despite what it might look like, kids don’t actually want to be in charge. “These kids are often frustrated and filled with anxiety,” says MacNamara. “Out of insecurity, they try to tell us how to take care of them.” It’s like they know someone needs to be in charge, and since you’re not doing it, they turn the tables.
Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist, and the author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid, calls these strong-willed kids “gladiators.”
“In the past 25 or 30 years, there’s been a shift to much more permissive parenting—parents are flipping over backwards trying to please their kids,” Kolari says. “Kids have no problem talking back to adults or even teachers now, whereas we wouldn’t have done that when we were little.”
We know old-school parenting doesn’t work either, says Kolari. The yelling, shaming and spanking our parents may have relied on not only damages your relationship but can actually cause kids to act out more, because they feel so bad about themselves. The key is to find a happy medium—to understand the importance of limits and boundaries, and stick to them in a caring fashion. Here are eight ways to take back the lead with a bossy kid.
Your kid needs to have the sense that you’re in charge, because that’s what makes them feel secure and taken care of, says MacNamara. That means trusting your instincts to make decisions about things like bedtimes or whether they’re allowed screen time in the mornings and then upholding them. Claiming an alpha stance also means controlling your emotional reactions to difficult behaviour—don’t lose your cool and start screaming when they don’t listen or allow yourself to be reduced to tears. Your kid will see you don’t have a handle on the situation.
With alpha kids, you have to pick your battles or you’re going to exhaust yourself, says Kolari. She suggests dividing areas of conflict into three categories: red light, green light and yellow light. For example, red light is for non-negotiables, like wearing a seat belt, holding your hand in the parking lot and going to bed at a certain time. “You win those battles every single time,” Kolari says. Yellow light is for things like bath time, eating vegetables and even brushing teeth. That’s where you can take a moment if they question you or resist, before giving an answer. “In that exact moment, is it going to be the end of the world if they don’t do it? No. So you have a little bit of flexibility,” she says. And then there’s green light: So what if their clothes match or they’re taking four toys instead of three to the restaurant?
While conflict might make you feel uncomfortable, alphas thrive on it, says Kolari. “It’s a sport for them—they’re not actually that distressed. They don’t see arguing as such a negative thing.” As unnatural as it may feel, when you’ve made a decision, stick with it and try not to get emotionally triggered. “You have to stay neutral and strong like an oak tree, just rooted in the ground with kids like this,” she says.
When your kid is refusing to put on their shoes, your natural reaction is probably, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?” But take a moment to show some empathy before laying down the law, suggests Kolari. “If you correct right away, you’re going to double down on the behaviour and you’re going to get more yucky behaviour.” So when my five-year-old is ordering me to wait for her outside her classroom, I should say, “I know you’re having fun—it’s hard to say goodbye to your friends.” And keep my feet firmly placed inside the classroom.
It’s important to give your kid options so they feel like they aren’t always being bossed around, but Kolari says the choices need to be limited. Try to avoid open-ended questions like “What do you want to wear today?” or “What should we have for dinner?” She explains: “We’re not actually parents; we’re substitute frontal lobes.” A kid’s frontal lobe—the part of the brain that mediates, inhibits, organizes and prioritizes—is underdeveloped, and our job is to help with some of the decision making. “So when it comes to choices, they have to be perceived choices: for example, ‘You can wear this or you can wear that.’ So they get a little bit of say, but within the parameters of you being the frontal lobe.”
Some parents give their kids too much control over big life decisions, says MacNamara. There are some decisions that are appropriate for a young kid, like what they want to do for their birthday. But letting them opt out of a family decision to enroll them in French immersion? Nope. Another example: “It’s not if you do your homework—it’s when you do your homework,” says MacNamara.
Get ahead of problematic behaviour by “soliciting good intentions” beforehand, says MacNamara. Kolari calls this technique “front-loading.”
“Everything’s a contract: If you continue to behave this way, you are choosing this consequence,” she says. “For example, ‘We’re going to the mall. This is the behaviour I’m looking for; this is the behaviour I expect. How can I help you get there?’” Talk about the consequences ahead of time and remember that they should only be logical ones—in this case, going home or having to sit in the car with the other parent.
Trump their requests by giving them more than they ask for. For example, if an alpha child always demands that you put their coat and shoes on for them at pickup, automatically do it in the first place—regardless of the fact that they can do it themselves. MacNamara also suggests surprising your kid with their favourite meal before they’ve had a chance to insist on having it. While this might feel like you’re giving in, she says it communicates to your kid that you understand them and can be counted on.
I’ve been working hard at giving my girls those loving limits and practising my alpha stance while still being empathetic. I was worried that being more strict would make them feel less attached, but we’re as close as ever, and I sense that I’m earning their trust. Those dreaded daycare pickups are becoming slightly less painful, and the girls are even starting to believe me when I say time’s up. Sometimes they follow me out, and sometimes I’m dragging them out the door, but either way, they’re learning Mama’s in charge. “It is much easier to carry a three-year-old out than a 13-year-old,” says Kolari. The sooner they learn who’s the boss, the better.