Controlling Bossiness

My partner, Sue, gave me some bad news last night. She said that our daughter, Molly, had been really bossy with Jane, her playmate, yesterday. The way Sue's eyes rolled when she described it told me that she didn't mean just a little bossy. She meant obnoxiously bossy, flagrantly bossy, even repulsively bossy.

I stood there stunned. This could only mean one thing. Despite my ardent convictions to the contrary, my beloved daughter is not perfect. What a blow.

"Was she hungry?" I asked hopefully. "Sometimes she gets grouchy when her blood sugar gets low." 

"No," said Sue. "She was bossy all day."

I was going to have to deal with this. All day Molly had been directing her poor friend in what games they would play and how. Molly insisted on choosing what imaginary characters had a right to exist and who could play them. Molly composed the whole script. When Jane protested Molly would just say, "Well you can go home then." 

I wondered where Molly could have picked up this "bossiness". Sue is sometimes bossy, but I don't think I tend to be bossy. Do I? ...hmmm. 'I should think about that sometime,' I told myself. 'Maybe when I retire and I have nothing else to do.' 

I offered Sue another explanation. "Maybe it is just a stage. Her skill in asserting herself is a little ahead of her ability to understand her effect on others."

"Maybe," said Sue, "but it concerns me."

Suddenly I felt the weight of paradox. How do we get Molly to stop being so bossy, without modeling bossiness in our attempt to control her behavior?

Suppose, for instance, I tell her that her friends won't want to play with her if she is too bossy. Will she do as I say, or do as I do? I can hear her now, telling Jane, "If you don't share things (like that candy bar I want half of), then me and other kids won't want to be your friend anymore."  

This paradox is nothing new. I was quite aware of it as a rebellious teenager. I used to point my stereo speakers toward the bathroom, turn up the volume, get in the shower, and sing along to Bob Dylan with great dramatic emphasis:

"In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand At the mongrel dogs who teach Fearing not that I'd become my enemy In the instant that I preach..."

We face the same paradox in Yugoslavia. Just how many people do we kill to stop Milosevic from killing people? I really don't know.

But back to Molly. This evening dinner was late and bedtime came suddenly on it's heels. "It's bedtime Molly, go up and get on your PJs." Surprise, Shock, Horror. "NO WAY!" She throws down her napkin and runs off, refusing to answer my calls. I am mad. I want to chase her down and confront her on her disrespect. I know that will make things worse, but I want to do it anyway.

I guess I can't wait until retirement to look at my control issues. Molly responds to control so directly that I will never have a better mirror to see myself through. To confront her on her disrespect now would leave her feeling controlled about both her bedtime and her reaction to its sudden onset.

I breathe and take things one at a time. I ask myself what does Molly need? She needs advance notice, so that the call to end her day is something she can prepare herself for. She needs to have some choices, like "What would you like to do for the next ten minutes before bedtime?" She needs the freedom to object or feel bad about rules even if she has to follow them. And she needs closeness, more than anything, if I expect her to cooperate. "Let's go upstairs together, Molly. I want to see which PJs you pick, which book you want to read, and which side of the bed you want to snuggle with me on."

Later, when we were on the same team again, I wanted to address her tantrum. I asked her how she had felt when she shouted at me and ran out of the room. No longer in the middle of a power struggle, she had a few of her own ideas about what she could have done instead. I told her that I wished I had given her fair warning. 

It is such a balancing act, providing needed direction without over-controlling. I fall off center all the time. I guess Molly makes the same kinds of mistakes when she negotiates with her friends. We can talk with her about it, maybe ask her why it seems that she makes up most of the rules when she plays with Jane. But how we treat Molly ourselves will probably say more than any advice we could give.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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