When Your Only Child Thinks She's the Boss

Our preschooler saw herself as the CEO of our household. My husband and I realized we had to take her down a notch.

Kid being bossy Priscilla Gragg

It dawned on me recently that our 5-year-old daughter, an only child, considers herself a third partner in our marriage. Sylvie confidently weighs in on all of our family decisions, from where to eat dinner ("How about Chinese this time?" she'll pipe up from her car seat) to our next summer vacation spot ("Maine would be fun").

Worse, she's picked up my unfortunate habit of making brisk, decisive pronouncements, even when I don't entirely know what I'm talking about. When my husband, Tom, asked me whether he should fly or take the train to a business meeting in Washington, D.C., Sylvie, who to my knowledge has never visited the nation's capital, advised him to fly.

We've enabled this behavior partly because it's nearly impossible to have a private conversation in our small apartment. But if I'm being honest, I must admit that it's also sort of funny to watch someone who wears light-up shoes give input on all aspects of our life. When the three of us visited an apartment open house a few weeks ago, the realtor was amused by Sylvie's comments about the closets ("Oooh, you could put a lot of clothes in here") and kitchen appliances ("A new fridge, very nice"). She's even become adept at defusing marital squabbles by jumping between us and making us laugh.

But she has acquired way too much power, best illustrated by this scenario: At dinnertime, she drags her chair to the head of the table so she can preside over the meal like a tiny chairman of the board.

It's time to demote her. I share this predicament with many parents of only children, a group that's growing rapidly. A full 20 percent of U.S. families (about 17 million) currently have just one child, according to the latest Census Bureau statistics. Onlies have gained in numbers for a variety of reasons: More women today are immersed in their career and put off having children; families feel squeezed by the economy; and many couples run into fertility issues.

These families of three often evolve into a tight little unit, without much separation between parents and offspring. But separate you must, advises Alan Ravitz, M.D., a child psychiatrist in New York City. He says that freighting a kid with adult responsibility is not a good idea. "I just can't imagine a single important decision you'd want Sylvie to participate in," he told me. "She doesn't have good judgment -- she has lousy judgment, like all 5-year-olds! Children her age have no capacity for abstract thought whatsoever. They don't think about things -- they just experience them."

Not only that, but parents' decisions also often involve delayed gratification ("You can't have ice cream right now, but maybe as a treat this weekend") while kids, being kids, will vote on having it now-now-now. "Teaching Sylvie to not get everything she wants is a gift," says Dr. Ravitz. "Because if she grows up thinking she's the boss, life's going to be a constant disappointment."

This is especially true if she jumps between us during a spat, even a playful one; Dr. Ravitz and numerous experts warn that children have to stay out of it. It's okay to let a kid know a conflict has been resolved and all is well -- try saying something like, "I was upset because Daddy has been working too much lately, but he says he'll spend more time with us next week." Children should never be part of the fight; that can lead to all kinds of problems, from aggressive behavior to fear and guilt if a kid chooses sides.

So now we keep the bickering between us (if an argument grows more heated, we do our familiar angry pantomime over Sylvie's head as she watches Curious George). And we only ask for her opinion on the mildest possible topics, such as what to have for dessert. Anything beyond that, we tell her firmly, is a Mommy-and-Daddy decision.

It's a point that needs reinforcing as often as possible, says Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only and mother of a singleton. "When my daughter thinks something should go a certain way, I explain that she doesn't get to make those choices yet," she says. "My husband and I are clear about that, and it gets articulated on a daily basis."

And so our daughter was finally ousted from the tribunal. When she tried to muscle in on a discussion about where she should apply to kindergarten, we told her we knew more about the situation than she did and would handle it. When she attempts to direct our weekend plans (often involving three playdates and cookies at every meal), we tell her we'll work out a schedule and let her know.

Of course she protested. Of course she craved more authority. But as our two-person rule became the new normal, she adjusted. And maybe that's what she secretly wanted. "I think it's scary for children to have too much power," says Darald Hanusa, Ph.D., a therapist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Social Work. "Children nowadays get exposed to way too much information, anyway. Kids really do want someone to say, 'These are the limits.' And children who don't have boundaries keep pushing the envelope. The sooner you establish boundaries, the sooner they can stop pushing and just put their energy into being kids."

As for my husband and me, being (an occasional) twosome again has strengthened our marriage more than a few date nights ever could. Now we laugh at the fact that we used to take direction from someone who thinks her stuffed animals are alive. And these days, when Sylvie is allowed to cast a vote she takes her task seriously. The other night when we were at a restaurant, she studied the three choices on the children's menu with the unblinking concentration of a Talmudic scholar. "This is hard," she whispered, and Tom and I looked at each other and smiled. Determining whether to go with the bland chicken fingers or the bland pasta with butter or the bland grilled cheese should be the most taxing decision she makes all day. Soon enough, she'll be faced with bigger, more complicated choices. For now, we'll keep it simple.

    What Is Positive Discipline?

      Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Parents magazine.