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My daughter is nearly 5yrs old and goes to kindergarten. Recently her classmate's (call her A) parent reports to the class teacher that my daughter bosses A verbally to the point that A refuses to go to school.

The example behaviour is that my daughter puts a doll on the chair next to her, claims that's her doll's seat, and orders A to pull up a new chair.

On one hand, this is certainly not kind and we do constantly tell her about politeness as well as sharing. But on the other hand, I feel that this is quite common in children and we don't want to discipline her beyond the age norm.

When this type of behaviour happens between my daughter and me, I would tell her that's not kind, remove her dolly, and sit there anyway. When it happens between she and her other friends (they do that to each other all the time), my observation is that they immediately start shouting and the teacher/parent would intervene.

Now this A happens to be shy. She didn't fight back or raise it to the class teacher on the spot, but went back and told her mum. Probably worse, she suffered quietly for a while and only told her mom when she couldn't take anymore.

My questions are

  1. Is my daughter's behaviour acceptable, in the sense that we don't like it but could tolerate it because of the young age?
  2. What would be a good response to A's parent?

Let's assume that my daughter doesn't target A specifically, which is order of magnitude more serious, but that she would do it to anyone on that spot.

Edit: After seeing @David Hedlund answer, I think I probably should include more example. Similar behaviour I observed myself include

  • Asking us to not eat the food she likes on dinner table
  • Not sharing with others the pens of her favourite colours when kids are drawing together

which IMHO more in the theme of bossing instead of make belief. But I'm not sure though.

  • Comments are not for answers; if you have a question about this post, please feel free to request clarification. Otherwise, feel free to post an answer. Thanks. – anongoodnurse Dec 17 '19 at 18:14

10 Answers 10

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I don't think you're in a black or white situation, where this 'bossy' behavior is either normal, or a problem that needs a parental solution-- It's both. It is quite normal for some five year olds to be bossy, attempt to control others, and to sometimes take it too far and be a bit of a bully to others, particularly if they are very confident kids with shyer playmates. It is also a type of behavior that often calls for some parental guidance (not necessarily punishment). I definitely don't endorse 'double punishing' any behavior that already got a consequence at school.

Continuing to talk to your daughter about sharing and asking/speaking nicely to others, and asking her to consider how her words make others feel is more appropriate and will probably more effective, in my opinion, than a punishment for something that happened previously. If it's mostly a matter of your daughter's strong opinions/bossiness upsetting A in this one instance, and not a situation where she's specifically targeting a particular classmate, I feel like a calm, non-punitive talk about relating kindly to others is plenty of intervention.

It sounds like you're already working on it, and that's all you really need to tell A's parents.

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    The trend seems to be that the OP's child do this to her own mother. She's now discovering she can do this to other people and others don't stand up to her like her mom. I actually don't see any sense that she thinks this is wrong. The OP said it isn't kind, but what is it about kindness that the OP's child should care about? Maybe she doesn't want to be kind. Maybe she wants her doll to have the seat instead of someone else? – Nelson Dec 17 '19 at 2:18
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    @Nelson No. Wrong. Reframe: the OP's child do this to her own mother, yes. She's now discovering she can do this to other people and her friends often stand up to her just like her mom. "I actually don't see any sense that she thinks this is wrong". The child knows it is wrong and is reprimanded by both her parent and teacher, but is rewarded with attention. "The OP said it isn't kind, what is it about kindness that the OP's child should care about". Correct, the child is being educated out of kindness.The small group who play that game reinforce it. A is so far the only one resisting. – Frank Dec 17 '19 at 11:09
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    @Frank - A is resisting? If A was, the situation may well have been nipped in the bud. Telling Mom is not resisting. OP's child 'gets away with it' with A because A allowed herself to be bullied. – Tim Dec 18 '19 at 9:10
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    @Tim I strongly disagree, but I think you misunderstand me. The little community of ill-behaved children arguing with each other in a schoolyard game of one-up-manship (I am going to be Parent! No, I am going to be Parent!!) and continually distracting the class and causing teacher intervention is a game they play and try to involve others in. A is simply saying "I am not playing this, and it is wrong" and is involving authority to correct the situation. A is doing the right thing. The teacher is failing in her responsibilities by the sound of things. – Frank Dec 18 '19 at 9:23
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    My comment came from 40 yrs experience as a teacher. I'm convinced that there are children (and adults) who are vulnerable to being bullied - 'natural victims' - for a variety of reasons; and resistance by A wasn't shown at the time of the 'offence'. – Tim Dec 18 '19 at 9:50
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By tolerating the behavior, you're validating the behavior. Her age doesn't matter - it only make the problem your responsibility.
Let's call things as they are: your daughter bullied another girl to the point that she doesn't want to come to school anymore.

Work with the teachers on a solution. And inform the girl's parents.
At the very least, have your daughter present an apology to the girl in front of the girls parents. (You can have your daughter take time out of her usual play time and draw her an apology picture.)
This will show your daughter that her behavior is problematic.
This will also show the victim, the girl, that those in charge are taking the problem seriously.

I know I'm pushing a bit on the wording with bully and victim. But that's how the other girl felt and you have to take that into account. She has a right to feel safe at school.
When I write about bullying, it's because of the repetition and the targeting of A. 5 year olds don't do much worse than exclusion or stealing. It's a question of level. Later, the equivalent behavior would be preventing her from sitting anywhere in class, or removing the chair when A sits.

The phrase "When it happens between she and her other friends" might be a question of perception. At worst, it's validating violence because everyone is doing it.

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As long as your mode of parenting is loving and doesn't employ punishments, I see no great risk involved in over-parenting your child. You can work to foster desirable behavior at almost any age.

I realize the example behavior you've described is not the full picture, but in that specific scenario, I don't interpret the behavior as bossy. Children are good at make-belief. To your daughter, it may simply be true that the seat is taken.

When you describe how you deal with that behavior at home, I think it is more problematic that you choose to both judge that as being "not nice", which is assuming (I think erroneously) malicious intent, and to force your way by overriding her request and sitting down anyway. I think that has a real risk of making her feel unfairly judged, and that her will doesn't matter. Whether having her play disregarded by adults at home has subsequently made it more important for her to stand her ground with her peers at kindergarten is perhaps reading too much into it, but not implausible to me.

I would advocate a softer approach, acknowledging the play. You could turn to the doll instead of to the child, and say, "Hey doll's name, I see that this was your seat, but I would really like to sit with my daughter for a while, and besides, we're going to eat human food, now, and you're a doll." And then you respond in a funny voice, playacting the doll, "Oh, that's alright, I'm going to eat doll food in the toy room anyway. Kid's name can join me for doll dessert after." Kids this age still usually enjoy when their parents play with them. If you can get playful, your attention should trump playing with a doll.

Now that you've acknowledged the play, instead of passing her off as unkind for playing, she may be more inclined to trust that you have her back, and you'll have more trustworthiness going into a discussion on how to behave when you're not around. You can say, "Hey, I get that you were playing, but A wanted to sit besides you the other day, and when you said she couldn't, that made her sad. I understand that you didn't mean to make her sad, but if you don't allow other kids in your play, then they won't want to play with you, and I think you'd really regret that."

I usually find that you won't get the response you're hoping for in that immediate situation, because kids usually find it almost as hard as us adults to admit that we've been or done wrong, but with repetition, the message may sink in anyway. Crucially, though, she will not be in a position to receive that message if first you've told her that she's unkind and that her play is without value and can be overriden without explanation. You need to earn that trust.

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  • Thanks. I edit the OP to include more examples I observed that I believe are in the theme of bossing -- I'm not particularly sure though. – jf328 Dec 16 '19 at 10:01
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  1. Is my daughter's behaviour acceptable, in the sense that we don't like it but could tolerate it because of the young age?

Five is a rough age. Most kids are just finding their "voice", as their interactions with their peers have a lot more awareness of social nuance than younger ages, but there's still a fair amount of development on the finer points that is still needed.

The behavior you describe is not uncommon at that age, but I would say quite firmly that being statistically "normal" doesn't equate to being "acceptable".

As children are developing their social skills, they rely on feedback and enforced boundaries to develop their understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behavior (i.e. what does and does not "work" for getting them what they want).

Two year olds are notoriously bad at sharing. It is perfectly normal for a two year old to grab a toy that another child is playing with and shout "mine!". But the fact that it is normal does not mean it should be allowed. The appropriate action for the two year old is to gently take the toy from them, give it to the child that was originally playing with it, and explain that the children have to take turns and share. This likely will require repetition before the child understands and starts to get better at sharing, but they will learn if the proper behavior is adequately modeled.

The situation is no different with your daughter. Bullying another child (and yes, I agree with the term "bullying", even if that is not your daughter's intent) is not acceptable behavior, even if it is developmentally normal at that age. You need to help your child's teacher set appropriate boundaries, and consistently enforce them.

I would suggest talking with your child's teacher, and discuss how best to set boundaries for "asking" vs "telling". You should model the same strategies for this at home as what the teacher employs at school; this will make it easier for your daughter to recognize that it doesn't matter if the context is adults or other children: the behavior itself is not acceptable.

A helpful approach is to offer a "better" way for your daughter to get what she wants, rather than just setting up barriers to the bad behavior.

For example, explain to her that "A" (or any other child) might want to use the chair, too, and that as she knows, people have to share. If she asks "A" if her doll can use the chair, "A" might say yes, in which case everyone is happy. But if "A" doesn't want to give up the chair, "A" can have it, because the doll can sit in your daughter's lap, and "A" cannot. Make it clear, though, that the decision is up to "A", and that if "A" doesn't want to share, that your daughter has to respect it.

"A" may never say yes, which is likely to frustrate your daughter, but since you will make clear to her that asking, and respecting the answer, is the only option, her behavior should start to change.

  1. What would be a good response to A's parent?

An apology, and an explanation that you know your daughter's behavior was wrong, as well as details of how you plan to work with both your daughter and your daughter's teacher, are the minimum I would be expecting if I were A's parent.

I would also suggest asking for feedback whether A's parent felt that was a good approach, as well as providing a means for A's parent to contact you directly if there are any further concerns. But you may want to judge their attitude before taking either of these steps; if they seem overtly hostile (which, frankly, would be understandable), you might want to hold off on soliciting advice and offering contact information until their attitude softens.

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To add to all the other excellent answers, I provide here a simple psychoanalytical interpretation of what is going on, using 'transactional analysis' (TA). (I am not an expert, nor professional psychologist, merely someone who has taken a keen interest in this area in the past).

You say this:

When this type of behaviour happens between my daughter and me, I would tell her that's not kind, remove her dolly, and sit there anyway. When it happens between she and her other friends (they do that to each other all the time), my observation is that they immediately start shouting and the teacher/parent would intervene.

According to transactional analysis, the daughter is playing a 'game' and winning.

The basic unit of exchange in social interaction is any kind of attention. Nothing is worse than total isolation. Humans fundamentally need attention, and deprivation of it not only leads to psychological damage but physical deterioration too. In TA this unit of exchange is labelled 'strokes'. Social interaction in this framework is viewed as transactions in which strokes are exchanged.

What follows is a 'game' (TA term). The aim of every game is to exchange strokes. Some games are toxic, some are not. But the aim of all games is to exchange strokes. It is merely a product of conditioning that people fall into traps of playing toxic games.

Initial State:

Daughter: I want my mum's attention.

Parent: I want my daughter's attention.

At this point it is worth trying to investigate why Daughter feels like there might be a deficit in attention to start playing this game.

  • Are you the Parent always busy?
  • Are you not proactive enough in generating 'strokes'?
  • Or is it that the child is inherently hungry for attention and knows that this method is a guaranteed and easy way of being a constant centre of attention?

Next:

Daughter: You can't sit next to me, my dolly sits there. (Interpret this as simply: I provoke reprimand to get attention)

Parent: That's not kind, I will put your dolly away and sit next to you. (Interpret this as simply: That's not kind, I will reward you with a verbal reprimand and sit next to you.)

In short you are training your child to get attention by provoking reprimand because you reward her with your company when she is provocative. It is as simple as that. Remember that reprimand is attention.

Your final point in that paragraph is quite concerning:

When it happens between she and her other friends (they do that to each other all the time), my observation is that they immediately start shouting and the teacher/parent would intervene

You are saying that at school at the age of 5 this behavior has already progressed to the point that frequently and repeatedly the daughter has learnt to replay and recreate this situation to the extent that [daily?] the teacher is forced to step in and break up a group conflict. In my locality a school appointed psychologist would be sitting in the class and already formally assessing how to deal with this situation. This is a serious problem and from the limited information I have from your post, it sounds like you need to very seriously look into how to stop this from progressing.

The key to a solution is to understand how to replace that method of satisfying the daughter's need for attention with something more positive. How to play a different social game. For this I suggest you ask a professional. But without that it might be worth considering this:

Daughter: You can't sit next to me, my dolly sits there. (Interpret this as simply: I provoke reprimand to get attention)

Parent: Silent response. [Parent sits somewhere else and ignores daughter for a period of time, also removes dolly and bans toy temporarily]

Further, it's worth noting that your daughter's bossiness/bullying is not necessarily a result of mimicry. It is simply because you reward that behavior.

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    Very good answer. I like to add that "this game" is a form of communication. Setting facts "My doll sits here!" without further explanation, e.g. "and I want to comb her hair now" is a learned form of communication. Do you as parents use that form? Explain decisions. – Joachim Weiß Dec 17 '19 at 13:28
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    @JoachimWeiß Correct! This 'parent ego state' behavior is met at home with a child ego state coming from the parent (ok I will just sit here and reward you for acting like a parent). 'Parent ego state' is learnt behavior. What this may be reflecting is a dynamic at home. Perhaps one parent is authoritarian and the other not. Or perhaps the parents recently emigrated from a society where teachers dealt with things differently. – Frank Dec 17 '19 at 13:43
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What I do in this situation is a three-pronged approach.

First, understand that the child is just mimicking what she sees. People boss her around all the time. People she likes, people she even "respects," tell her what to do then expect her to do it. So my first step is to always modify (and if needed work with the teachers and others) my behavior and make sure that most of the time I am "asking" and not "telling" the child what to do. This can be hard, as many parents are "do what I say when I say" people historically, and that expectation and behavior tends to carry over. Asking the child to do something, then allowing natural consequences to take over when they don't can be a very rough change, but if your constantly "bossy" why should your child not imitate you?

Second is to enforce the use of the magic word. This can also be a big change but simply stop doing ANYTHING the child asks unless they say please. Anything (so long as there is no danger). They want juice, did they say please? Does she want a hug, was there a please? Does she need you to open the car door for her, well there better be a, please? Everything, no matter how routine or mundane, needs a please or I just ignore the request. Remember you already changed your behavior in the first step, requiring a please will help the child understand manors, at least enough to change "bossy" to "demanding". I mean just to tone changes "Give me the red crayon" to "Give me the red crayon, please." It's not perfect but it's easy to understand and enforce, and removes an element of being a bully.

The third step, I would say is conditional. If the first two are not making an impression, or are meeting with a ton of resistance, then it's time to use time outs, and the like to effect change. Please understand that this is a "last step" and not your go-to, only after the first two items fail, do you want to apply this step, and then only for a short a time as needed to get across that a change in behavior is needed. Some kids just don't get it without the negative, and if that's the case then apply the negative. Remember, for as short a time as possible. You don't want to be doing this for months or even weeks. But every time the child doesn't say please, or bosses you around, or you actively catch her bossing another child around, stop play, and use a time out. Direct her that telling another person what to do "is not her job" that she is "not the mama" and/or that bossy behavior is not acceptable. After the time out, have her say "sorry" to the person in question. Then drop it and move on like it didn't happen. Again, this is not step one, or two. This should only be done if you and the other authorities in her life have changed their behavior, AND you have started enforcing "please" AND the child still doesn't want to address her behavior. 90% of the time the first two items work just fine. Some kids just need the extra push to examine their behavior. Just take great care that the child understands that it's the bossy communication and not communication in general that is the cause of the problem, and only rely on "punishment" for a short a time as you can possibly manage.

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  • Yes. Upvoted. Timeouts here would appear to be the solution. – Frank Dec 17 '19 at 9:30
  • Aren't timeouts exactly the kind of "solution" that the kid is mimicking? Sending kids to kneel in the corner was a common punishment when I was a kid, and it never worked. And it's just another form of solitary confinement, which is a horrible thing to do to another person. There's a big difference between "I'm upset with you, and I'm not going to play with you now" and "I'm upset with you, so go lock yourself up in your room and stay there until I give you leave". – Luaan Dec 18 '19 at 8:35
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    A few points. Yes, timeout is a poor solution. But some kids need that negative side to start their process of learning. However, like I said it should be a last attempt. Not a go-to. And timeout is not solitary confinement. It's supposed to be a chance to stop and consider their behavior. If your using timeout as "I'm Upset with you" then try time-in or think-about-it. – coteyr Dec 18 '19 at 12:52
  • @Luaan those concerns are exactly why sending a kid to sit in the corner has been replaced with "time out". While some people treat them the same, I see "time out" as more of a recognition that the current situation involves unacceptable behavior, and that the best solution is to have everyone involved take a break. Time out should be a brief pause (I recall seeing recommendations of 1 minute per year of age, maximum) to allow emotions to calm, rather than isolation. – Beofett Dec 18 '19 at 19:22
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For the doll example, I see nothing wrong. Especially if it isn't anyone specific seat. If it's a seat for a specific person then the teacher should take care of it.

The doll need a place to sit with your daughter.

At home, I would just say "Is there a place your doll can sit without taking a chair for people?". This would make her think of better situation instead of the vague "It's not nice" approach which is difficult to understand.

Explain the problem and let her find a solution.

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    I wouldn't say there's nothing wrong with the example (and exactly how bad it is depends on details the OP hasn't shared). But overall, yes. It's a great showcase why "explanations" like "It's not nice" are worse than useless. The obvious reaction to such scolding is something like "well, maybe I don't want to be nice then" or "being nice is stupid". Your solution is also a lot better than any of the other answers - point out the problem, let her find a solution. "I can see the doll needs a place to sit; A also needs a place to sit. What can we do about that?" – Luaan Dec 18 '19 at 8:40
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Is my daughter's behaviour acceptable, in the sense that we don't like it but could tolerate it because of the young age?

Before I answer that, I think it is important to understand the difference between normal and acceptable. In the context of child development, "normal" applies to what can be expected of a child based on their age and development. "Acceptable" applies to whether the behavior is something you want to continue. Some examples:

  • A three year old wetting the bed is normal behavior.
  • A fifteen year old still needing diapers is abnormal behavior
  • A child getting upset that a friend took their toy and asking for it back is acceptable behavior
  • A child getting upset that a friend took their toy and breaking their nose is unacceptable behavior.

Your daughter's behavior (the stuff at school as well as the stuff from your edit) is completely normal for her age but it is not acceptable. You need to work with her on how to handle the situation better

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I'm a little surprised that you asked "Is my daughters behaviour acceptable". You have already stated that if she did it to you you wouldn't tolerate it.

The problem that I can see here is that you are not being consistent - and that is actively encouraging this behaviour. Essentially, by only taking action when she does something to you; and not taking action when she knows you're aware of her action; you are giving her permission to act this way around others.

As far as a response to childA's parent; I would inform them that you've told your child that it's not ok; that their child should be getting an apology from yours; and that you would like to hear if the issue has not been resolved so that you can take further steps if required.

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Your daughter is fulfilling a valuable educational role in their toy society, a big reason we school our children collectively is to socialize them. To teach them how to interact with other people, how to react to various behaviours and what to expect in return for your own behaviour. Pushy, tyrannical people are part of life and it is far better to learn about them in the safe enviornment of the nursery where actions have no outside consequences, and at a time when the brain is highly flexible. The burden is on her guardians to teach her how to assert and stand up for herself, something they might never think to do if it was never a problem. You have informed them, and thus you have done your duty.

You are right to be more concerned for your own daughter and the impact such behaviour will have on her character. But you seem to have done your research, and believe that she will grow out of it. In which case I believe it is proper to let things run their course. Perhaps if the other child proves incapable of developing defenses then you may check your daughter out of mercy, but it is only decent to give them a chance to grow and adapt.

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    On the other hand, I hold the view that a parent's job is to train and teach their child to be a fully functional adult. Allowing them to be tyrannical as a child is not building the foundation for the kind of personality that most parents want their child to grow into. The purpose of my child is not to provide a challenge to other children. – Ruadhan2300 Dec 19 '19 at 11:05
  • @Ruadhan2300, thinking things in black and white is a main issue in parenting. People want to be assertive but not tyrannical, kind but not too shy. There is a range in the middle that should be acceptable. Also, if someone demands you to pull up another chair and you say no, you are challenging the others. Again, there is a wide range of acceptable or even encouraged challenges. – jf328 Dec 23 '19 at 3:01
  • @jf328 Sticking up for yourself is good, being tyrannical never is. The point is, while other children need to learn to deal with tyrannical people, my job as a parent includes making sure my child isn't one of them. I would discourage my child from acting in an unkind or inconsiderate fashion. If a child was consistently taking my child's seat they were using, I might encourage them to stick up for themselves, but being unkind while at play is not something to reinforce. – Ruadhan2300 Dec 23 '19 at 11:28

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