“You’re not the boss of me!” is a classic line for toddler power plays and tween/teen rebellions. And while you may be tempted to respond with a power-play line of your own, there are better ways to hear what your child is really saying and make your limits clear.
“Some things are non-negotiable.”
Betsy Brown Braun, author of You’re Not The Boss of Me (yes, really!), says when it comes to rules or directives that affect kids’ well-being, parents have to lay down the law. Your child may not like it when you tell him he has to stop playing and take a bath, but he still has to do it.
“Then you go back and revisit and say, ‘You know when you said, “You’re not the boss of me?” You’re absolutely right. I can’t control when you eat or poop. But there are some things in this world that you need to do,” says Braun, a renowned child development and behavior specialist and mother of triplets. “When you’re a grown-up, I will most definitely not be the boss of you.”
“Here’s a decision you get to make.”
Adele Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, says, “Children, like most grownups, object to orders and commands.” Faber advises parents to try empathy rather than getting into a power struggle. You can make the limits clear, she says, while still giving your child some say. “When possible, consider acknowledging the child’s feelings and offering a choice. So, no ball playing in the living room, but let’s think about where you can play. Outdoors in the front of the house? … Or maybe in the backyard? Whichever you prefer. You decide.”
That’s “you’re right,” followed by a big “but,” says Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families. For Feiler, it’s, “but we’re a family and certain rules apply, and if you don’t like it then bring it up at the family meeting.”
Feiler sets aside 20 minutes every Sunday evening as a safe zone for the family to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what to change for the following week — something that works well for older kids. The moment of a heated outburst is not a productive time to discuss the problem. “The point is that this is time where everybody is calm and we’re talking about how we are functioning as a family. We solicit new ideas and we try a new plan.” The key, Feiler says, is that it’s not a top-down authoritarian model. Instead, it’s a model where decisions are made in the context of how they affect the family.
“Let’s talk about what you think is unfair.”
Richard Weissbourd, Harvard psychologist and author of The Parents We Mean to Be, says when a child pushes back with a comment like this, it’s important to consider their motive. “Is it because he or she feels like you are doing things that are unfair and that he or she wants to talk about it?” he asks.
“It’s also important to say to a child, in fact, in many areas of your life, I am the boss of you. And I am responsible for helping you become a good person and a caring person and a person who’s a good family member. There are certain things like doing well in school that are important to me. These are things that I am responsible for as your parent.”
“I’m keeping you safe.”
Parenting expert Christine Carter says, “A lot of times, ‘you’re not the boss of me,’ is a way to test the limits. How much structure is there for me? And the more structure there is for kids, the more secure they’ll be.” She adds, “It’s totally fine for [kids] to push those limits as long as parents hold them.”
This comes up a lot in families with young kids, she says. And when you calmly tell your child that in fact she has to get dressed, has to go to school, and can’t wear sandals when it’s snowing, it’s what she needs to hear. As Carter, author of Raising Happiness, says, “Actually as your parent, it’s my responsibility to make sure that you are safe. As a 6-year-old, you are not old enough to make these decision yourself. That is tremendously reassuring to most kids, actually.”