My 6-Year-Old Says I’m “Bossing Her” When I Ask for Anything

What am I doing wrong?

Young girl with her hands on her hips looking frustrated.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andersen Ross Photography Inc/Getty Images Plus.

Nicole Cliffe is out today, so Slate staff writer and super parent Rebecca Onion stepped in to answer a few letters. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old daughter has taken to sobbing, “You’re bossing me!!!” whenever I tell her (or even ask her) to do something. I’ve been saying, “I’m your mom! It isn’t bossing! It is my job!” This obviously infuriates her. What can I say instead so she can hear me rather than focusing on her frustration? Also, what is this really about? Thanks!

—You’re Not the Boss of Me!

Dear YNtBoM,

I think we, as adults, sometimes overestimate our younger kids’ capacities to hear instructions and carry them out in a timely manner. Obviously, we adults know that we have to put shoes on to go out the door; we accept that this minor annoyance is just a part of life, and we’ll need to suffer it to carry on with the program. But kids have one-track minds, and if they’re focused on something else, it can feel like a big deal to have to switch that focus to do something that—to the kid!—seems sort of arbitrary and random. Hence, feeling “bossed.”

I’d take a look at what you’re asking her to do, and make sure it’s totally necessary to ask it. (I am sure you have already done this, but just in case there’s some bar that could be lowered here …) Then, I’d see if there could be a way to be more physically present with her as she carries out the instruction—don’t just drop it on her, require her compliance, and then leave, which could feel a little more like “bossing.” If it’s possible, ask her to do the thing, give a time frame for when it needs to happen, and then be around her while she follows through. It’s not that you have to put her socks on her feet like she’s a teeny-tiny baby, but if you can be a bit present for the completion of the task—maybe doing your own similar task alongside her, for example—that may soften your drill-sergeant image a bit.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Whenever I visit my friend Samantha and her 4-year-old son Danny, she has this annoying habit of “volunteering” me to Danny: “Danny, would you like Aunt P to watch Daniel Tiger with you?” “Danny, would you like Aunt P to get you a popsicle?” “Danny, would you like to try Aunt P’s french fries?” “Danny, would you like Aunt P to read you your truck book?” (This last one occurred when we were in the car driving somewhere, I promptly said, “Only if you want me to throw up, because I get motion sickness when I try to read in a car.”) You get the picture. This is all of the time, and it really grates on me. If Danny himself were to ask me, I wouldn’t be bothered, and would cheerfully go along for the most part (still would say no sometimes, like to reading in the car). But something about Samantha just assuming I will go along is extremely frustrating. How do I talk to her about this, without making it seem like I don’t want to interact with Danny?

—I Do Not Volunteer as Tribute

Dear IDNVaT,

Oof. I think she’s probably just trying to figure out ways you can connect with Danny and is taking a bit too heavy of a hand with it. As the parent of a preschooler—an age that’s discovered the desire to be part of adult conversations but is still far from knowing how to join—I feel this mom’s pain. This very morning, I prepared three different props for my own 3½-year-old to use in the course of one conversation with her grandparents over FaceTime. (It only sort of worked.) But I can see how this would be very annoying to you—you must feel a little bit like you’re being drafted as a de facto mother’s helper.

One avenue I can see for mitigating this problem would be for you to take the initiative when you’re with them. Suggest an Aunt P-and-Danny activity that you are OK with, so that you’re engaging with Danny, and Samantha doesn’t get a chance to volunteer something less appealing or more vomit-inducing. If you do that for a while, and build a more authentic relationship with him, she may feel less pressure to constantly prod you guys into connecting.

Or—I can’t quite tell from your letter—maybe what you really want is to be able to visit with her, without having to engage so much with him. If that’s the case, he might need to be somewhere else when you visit, and you should say so to her: “I really like seeing Danny, but I want to be able to have a more involved conversation with you. It seems like that might mean that we need to get together when he’s not there. Is there any way we can make that happen?”

Be prepared for the answer to be “Lol, no, I have no child care”—in which case, you might have to simply suck it up for a while, until he gets a bit older.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 2-year-old loves reading picture books where characters are sad, and seems to enjoy making herself cry when we read them. If a character gets sad for even a minor reason, she works herself up until she has real tears, becomes inconsolable, and wants me to comfort her. When the story resolves and the character gets a hug or fixes their problem she’s fine again, and she’ll ask to read the same book over and over. It’s like she wants to experience those strong emotions and enjoys overacting, though the tears are genuine. Is this normal?

—Tearful Toddler’s Mom

Dear TTM,

Ha! I hope it’s normal, because my own child, at that age, accumulated a pile of her books, opened them all to the pages where the characters cry (Angelina when she loses Henry at the fair; Curious George when he falls onto the pavement and breaks his leg) and made me go through all the “sad parts” one by one: “He’s crying! Oh, she’s crying!” She’s a little older now, but she still stares (a bit rudely, alas) at any kid who cries in public, and loud-whispers to me, desperately wanting to know what’s going on.

They are rehearsing how it feels to experience strong emotions, and your small theater kid is just taking it to the next level. I’d comfort her the way you would if she were actually crying that hard—play your part in the little drama, in other words—and wait for this phase to pass.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a bright, funny, and charming almost 7-year-old boy. He has that amazing imagination and thought process that only a kid can have. Lately he is fixated on “I wish gloves,” a product he made up in his head and is convinced Santa is getting for him. They are gloves that can grant him any wish on the planet. He tells anyone who will listen about them and all the things he will wish for. His main wish lately is that “the coronavirus will go away,” but mostly it’s the fun kid stuff like candy and Lego and a house with slides and trampoline floors.

My concern is the letdown factor. He is really not letting this go and brings it up daily. I’ve tried to tell him that Santa can’t usually give his magic or mysterious powers away, and that much magic would be unfair to give one kid. He is still happy to believe in Santa, and for his sake and his younger siblings I don’t want that to go away just yet. Any advice on how I can keep his expectations from breaking his heart this holiday season. Thanks!

— Perplexed in P-Town

Dear Perplexed in P-Town,

This is so sweet, and your boy sounds so wonderful! Oh, how I wish the “I wish gloves” were real, and could eliminate the coronavirus just like that! We can only dream …

I may not be a great person to ask about this, because I have no intention of keeping up the Santa illusion for my own kid. I feel too awkward telling that kind of a story, probably because my own family didn’t pretend Santa was real when I was younger. Not believing in Santa didn’t seem to put a dent in my holiday joy—I loved Christmas so much (the presents! The carols! The stories! The cookies! The visiting!) I would cry for days when it was all over.

But if you are committed to keeping up the illusion, you will have to operate within it. What would you do —or what have you done in the past—if he were to ask for something nonmagical, but expensive, impractical, or otherwise out of reach? There are lists of creative ideas on the internet for what to say in that case, and something on there might work. Maybe you could say something about wishing gloves being super expensive, and Santa having a budget for each kid, for example.

Whatever excuse you use, I do think it’s wise to lower expectations as the fall moves along. Hopefully by the time we get to December, the idea will have faded a bit, and our grim, wish-free reality will be easier to face.

— Rebecca

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