“You’re Not the Boss of Me!”

In this episode: A mother writes that her child has started saying, “You’re not the boss of me!” when asked to help around the house. While both parents want their kids to feel that they are their own people, “at the end of the day, we do say what goes.” This mom is wondering how she can best respond.

Transcript of “You’re Not the Boss of Me!”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. In today’s podcast, I’m responding to a parent who has a six-year-old who has started saying, “You’re not the boss of me.” This mom and her husband both want their kids to feel that they’re their own people but they also want them to cooperate with basic requests. So, they’re wondering how to handle this.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi, Janet. I have a question regarding who’s the boss in our family. Recently, our six-year-old son has started saying, “You’re not the boss of me,” when we ask him to help out around the house. My husband and I have sort of mumbled our way through our response, with my husband being more inclined to say something along the lines of, “No, we’re not the boss of you, but I do need you to still help out,” and me more along the lines of, “Well, we sort of are, actually.” But neither feels quite right. We both don’t like the idea of ownership over our children. They are their own people. But at the end of the day, we do say what goes. When it’s bedtime, it’s bedtime. When it’s time to leave the park, it’s time to leave the park. How would you respond to this sort of statement?

Side note: we also talk about ownership over our own bodies, i.e., that my body belongs to me, good touches versus bad touches, etc. It’s part of our personal safety discussions. Part of those conversations include us asking the kids, “Who’s the boss of your body?” and the kids will respond with, “Me!” This whole thing may have stemmed from those discussions and I now feel the whole thing is confusing for him and us. Thanks in advance.”

Well, this makes me smile because, yes, children are so clever and they really know how to use our words against us. Also, I’ve got to say that I’m not a huge fan of those types of methods for teaching personal safety and personal boundaries. I feel like there are more authentic, honest, relationship-based ways to give our children those lessons, like just sitting down with them one day or when you’re together talking about things.

You say, “By the way, we all have these parts of our bodies that we don’t let other people touch. Those are our private parts and to touch those parts of our bodies, somebody needs permission. So, if I’m not there or your dad’s not there, and somebody tries to touch you there, say no. That’s private.”

Just have a discussion about it that’s intimate. I think that makes it clearer. I think it gives us more of an opportunity to engage honestly and intimately with our child. Those are good moments together when we can share these important things. Doing this as a game seems contrived to me.

Also, we teach children body safety from day one. The way that we touch them, the way that we let them know what we’re doing, communicating to them what we’re doing with their bodies, avoiding things like tickling and lovingly attacking children’s bodies, things that sort of break their boundaries and teach them that they don’t have a right to their body, that they really can’t assert themselves in those ways. These become yet another kind of lesson that we teach children through our relationship with them, all of our actions and the way that we engage with them.

But anyway, that was just a side note that this mother had. What she really wants help with is how to handle “You’re not the boss of me.” This is obviously something her son is exploring and he’s noticed that these words seem to throw his parents off a bit, so he’s going with it. You’re not the boss of me. I think what he’s saying there, what I think they know he’s saying there is, “Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t want to do that. I have a will here.”

There are a couple of things I would do. One is I would be careful not to be in any way barking orders at him. Children hardly ever respond well to that when we’re saying, and I don’t know that this parent is doing that at all, but I know that they don’t like to be told, “Go do this now and do that. Can you do that, please?” In that kind of tone that feels bossy, I guess, that we’re telling them what to do. There are other ways we can ask children to do things. “Come on. It’s time to do this. Let’s get it done. We got to do this before we do that, so let’s do this first.” There are ways to engage with your child where your child doesn’t feel like you’re pointing a finger saying, “Do this now and do that.”

I would look at how you’re communicating to him about these things that you want him to do. Often times, it helps to say, “We’ll have dinner after you set the table. Do you need my help?” rather than, “Okay, time to set the table.” It makes sense that nobody likes to be bossed around that way.

The other part is understanding that this is an expression of a feeling. It’s not something we have to worry about so much literally and take so literally and respond to that way. She asks him to help around the house and he says, “You’re not the boss of me.” I wouldn’t be at all intimidated by that. I would say, “Oh, it sounds like you don’t want me to tell you what to do. Was I saying it that way?” Or “You don’t like me to be the leader here.” Or maybe even nothing. You could just nod your head. You know, hopefully he’s going to go along and do it anyway.

So, I wouldn’t be intimated by this at all. I would see it as him asserting himself. “Hey, I’m not somebody to be pushed around here,” and be fine with that opinion. That’s true. He’s not somebody to be pushed around. So, I guess similar to what this husband was saying, except the fact that I don’t know if this mother was exaggerating when she says they were mumbling. But if he’s got us both mumbling, then we’re getting intimidated, thrown by it. That’s going to very much encourage him to keep doing that, wondering, “Wow, all I do is I say this and it really gets them, and they kind of lose their footing a little bit with me.” There’s nothing to fear here.

This mother says something about we don’t like the idea of ownership over our children. Well, it’s not ownership of your children to be the leader. This mother’s right. I wouldn’t say those words, but I would say, “No, we’re not the boss of you, but we are your leaders and we need your help.” You’re not the boss of me is another version of the two-year-old or one-and-a-half-year-old saying, “No,” to things that they actually want but they want to assert themselves, they want to be able to say, “This is me and I’ve got my own opinion here and I’m not always going to do what you want.”

The more that you give permission for him to express that and welcome his opinion and you aren’t intimidated by it, the easier it’ll be for him to move through it rather than you all getting a little bit stuck there. He’s got a right to his opinion when you’re leaving the park, you’re not the boss of me. You don’t like it when I tell you it’s time to leave the park it sounds like, but we’re going. This is healthy stuff. It’s good that he’s flexing his muscle and it’s hilarious in a way that he caught on to the power of this phrase. Children are so funny.

Again, I wouldn’t be at all thrown by this normal stuff. It’s the toddler saying, “No.” It’s the toddler saying, “Mine.” It’s the four-year-old saying, “I’m not going to do it and I don’t like you.” This is the six-year-old finding a clever way to assert himself and it’s a good thing. Again, I think you’ll get more help from him if you’re coming from a place of being on his side in these chores or things that you want him to do, that you’re flexible, that you want it to work for him, that nothing here is make or break, and that you lay it out more as the next thing that needs to happen in all of your day, working together.

Also, I would say if it’s after school or at the end of the day, I wouldn’t expect a lot of children at those times, I know others will disagree with this, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of chores and them doing work for us. I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here.

Maybe I go too far the other way with my children, but I feel like when I do need their help, they always do it, because I’m not demanding of them. I understand that they use up a lot of energy during the day doing all the things they’re doing.

Again, back to how I would respond, he says, “You’re not the boss of me.” “I hear you.” Or “It sounds like you don’t want me telling you what to do. Did I do that this time? Sorry about that.” Or “I always want to hear your opinion.” All of those come from strength in us and confidence in that leadership role that we have. I think there’s a difference between a boss and a leader. I’m going to have to look that up, but I feel like a leader is more what we want to be.

I hope those ideas are helpful. Also please check out some of my other podcasts at JanetLansbury.com and remember both of my books are available on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. And Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Also, my exclusive audio series “Sessions” These are individual recordings of private consultations with parents discussing their urgent issues, is available at Sessionsaudio.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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