Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Don’t let their tiny size, cherubic faces, and sweet voices fool you:   toddlers really like to be in charge.  This is as it should be:  they are in the middle of working on developing their sense of self, their personal identity, and their understanding of themselves as a separate person from mom or dad. But admit it:  the bossiness can be pretty annoying to even the most patient parent.

It’s hard to understand the best response when a toddler wants to control you.   Good parents try to be good listeners, and they want to empower their children.  We also like to make our children happy as much as possible.  And honestly, the extreme bossiness kind of sneaks up on you.  It starts when your child is an adorable baby, just learning to walk and talk.  No one minds being ordered around by a 12-month old:  he  is just so cute you are completely in his power. But before you know it, that darling baby is a big bossy kid who is capable of throwing the biggest fits you ever saw, if you don’t give them their favorite sippy cup or if you can’t let them play with your keys.

Is there any way to prevent this?  Or to somehow empower your child, while not becoming a slave to her whims? Well, like everything else in parenting, there are no easy answers. 

I just have one tried and tested “rule of thumb” that seems to work fairly well:

When you feel that perhaps you are being manipulated, you probably are.  

When children are in a position to control and manipulate adults, it’s bad for everyone. The adult becomes resentful and grumpy, and suffers from a sense of helplessness. A child who has been granted too much power becomes insecure and fussy, as well as very unlikable. They need to know that WE are in charge, because deep down they know that they are not qualified to run the show. With only a couple of years of life-experience behind them, they simply aren’t ready for world dominion yet.. 

So how can you be an in-charge parent, while still offering your child some appropriate autonomy? 

It helps a lot if you ask yourself, “What can I let my child control?” and “What are some examples of appropriate power for my child right now?”  Some examples might be:

Some examples of appropriate power for a toddler:
-“Do you want to brush your teeth BEFORE your bath, or AFTER?”
-“Which one of these two shirts would you like to wear?”
-“It will be time for a diaper change (or potty break) in a couple of minutes.  Finish a little bit more of your play and then we’ll take care of it. Tell me when you’re ready.”  (And if they don’t take this opportunity to choose their time, YOU go ahead and do it for them.)

Some examples of inappropriate power for this age:
-“Is it ok if Mommy and Daddy go out?”
-“Do you want to go to school?”
-“Ok, I won’t talk if you don’t want me too.”

Or….. think about that too-familiar scenario in which the family is held hostage while a toddler changes her mind six times about which outfit to wear, or which favorite plate to eat dinner from.

There’s a fine line between being a caring, respectful adult and a good listener, and giving away too much adult power. It’s hard to find the right balance.  But parenting is all about balance. Sure, they’ll fuss about it when you first begin to take back some appropriate parental power, but under the surface, they are actually relieved

So here’s your cheat-sheet to use as a reminder:

“If I feel as if I am being manipulated, I probably am.”

“What are some choices that are appropriate for my child at this stage of development?”

“It’s ok if my child is unhappy with me.”

Thinking about these three simple things can really help you focus on your long-range goals as a parent. It’s great to let our little ones gradually become the “boss of themselves” but it’s just not a good idea to let them control the rest of the world.  Not yet.  There is plenty of time for your toddler to hone those “leadership skills,” on her way to becoming a powerful CEO, a senator, or a  terrific parent like you!


  1. This is really, really helpful. It sounds so simple reading this. You'd think someone who has taken as many negotiation classes as I have would know when I'm loosing my power. But it's hard to recognize in the daily demands of getting through the day and providing for their needs. THANK YOU for this.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kim. I'm glad to hear this resonated with you. I keep thinking back to Nancy Carlsson-Paige's wise words in Taking Back Childhood about "sharing power" vs. "overpowering" or "giving power away." It's an ongoing task to keep it all balanced, but fortunately, like any skill, you can get better at it with practice.


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