Dear Dr. Debbie,
I have 3 children, ages 6, 4, and 2. The oldest, a girl, seems to think she’s supposed to tell the others what to do. Not only does this worry me that she feels overly responsible for them, but I’m also afraid she thinks I’m not capable of my duties as a mother. What bothers me the most is that they often do what she says. Unfortunately, doing the “right” thing is not always what’s best or fair for them. If they don’t do her bidding, and I’m not quick enough to intervene, she’ll lose her temper and yell at or hurt them. Is there a way to tone down her parenting?
I’m The Mom
Don’t miss last week’s column Taking in a neighborhood 15-year-old — Good Parenting
Your daughter is both a first born and a 6-year-old. One of these attributes — the “know it all” stage of age 6 — will pass, however her birth order is permanent. When she entered the family, she had only adults to model after. This tends to encourage behavior that is more adult-like compared to later-born siblings. She is always a few steps ahead of her siblings with language, motor skills and the ability to predict and control others’ behavior. This gives her an advantage, perhaps to the disadvantage of those she is trying to control.
Here are some suggestions to minimize her bossing the others around.
Give other responsibilities
Children benefit from tasks that help them to feel that they are contributing to the family. The key is to choose chores that are age and personality appropriate. You must also be patient as they gain mastery of these jobs. You’ll know what jobs are age appropriate when it doesn’t take long for the child to learn the skills required for the job. And you’ll know it’s appropriate for her personality if she hardly seems to mind doing it.
The chores for a high energy child should involve lots of body movement — sweeping, raking, toting, etc. The chores for a child with high distractibility should be meted out in short chunks, perhaps on a checklist she can check off as she goes — put toys in the bin, straighten the bookshelf, then collect dirty laundry, rather than the overwhelming expectation to “clean your room.”
Success with chores usually requires close parental follow through, so set chore times that will be convenient for you during each day and week.
Time with same-age playmates
Dominating a younger sibling is less likely to occur the less she is “stuck with” the younger siblings. Be sure there are ample opportunities for your eldest to be with friends her own age – at your house, or theirs or at weekly group activities.
Nowadays parents often set up play dates rather than rely on the old fashioned “go out and play” method in which children could simply play with friends in the neighborhood. Make an effort to source out two or three steady playmates for your daughter. Being around children with similar abilities will reduce her tendency to lord it over her less capable, less savvy siblings.
More time with age mates lets her compare her skills, including responsibilities around the house, with children her own age.
Play make believe
There is an activity that can channel a child’s need to control the play and behavior of others that actually doesn’t require other players. Pretend play can involve puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals and a quiet space with some simple props.
Empty boxes and a few borrowed towels may be all she needs to work the wheels of her imagination. Your daughter may enjoy playing “house” or “school,” ostensibly by herself, but with a cast of characters to do the bidding of the main character (played by her). When she’s a little older, she may take to writing short stories or plays that satisfy the same need — to direct the action of others as she sees fit.
Fair is fair
The rules of fair play may still need your occasional guidance, especially when it involves the younger children. By age 5, most children are ready to accept that a set of rules makes it easier for everyone to get along. Even though your youngest can’t yet understand reciprocity, you can step in to demonstrate the concept of trading if one child wants something that someone else has.
Give all your children strategies for negotiating conflict with each other so they can be equal parties to sharing space, objects and ideas with one another.
Be the mom
Are there patterns to the situations in which your daughter feels compelled to take over parenting duties of the younger siblings? Your daughter may be picking up on a rise in your stress level and or distraction level, and the corresponding rise in her siblings’ needs for attention. Mealtimes, perhaps, could be simplified such that you are not distracted with preparations. Plan ahead and keep it simple to shorten time in the kitchen. Bedtimes could be staggered such that each child has one-on-one attention by a parent while the third is quietly reading a book to herself. Car time could be less hectic with a little thought given to car toys, songs to sing and snacks to bring along so that everyone’s needs are satisfied.
If there are times of the day when you are predictably busy or not at your peak, consider hiring a mother’s helper. This could be a neighbor around the age of 10 who comes over to “play with” one or more of your children. Though you are still within earshot, he or she has the role of looking out for safety, civility and even suggestions of what to play so your 6-year-old is no longer, albeit temporarily, the junior mommy. It may help her to let go of the burden of trying to control her siblings if you let her know that you are paying the mother’s helper to do this.
In four short years, with that much more maturity gained, your eldest might enjoy performing this service for another family herself.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com