Our three-year-old son is a great kid, but lately he has been playing this annoying little game: he orders us around, telling us what to do and how to do it, with really specific orders like “Mommy has to sit on the orange rug! Put your feet here, not there!” He gets really mad if we don’t do it his way. I have nightmares about where this is going. Is he becoming a bully? How do we handle this?
Your little tyrant is showing you in no uncertain terms that his budding superego is in a fever-pitch of development.
At this age, toddlers are struggling to master their bodies and their environment. They feel a flush of power, since they can now use their words and bodies to control what people do. They really enjoy play-acting, and that’s a wonderful and important part of being three. A three-year-old gets lost in the imaginative process, and we want them to learn from and enjoy play-acting. And they don’t yet feel the pull of what is socially OK. But the tiny superego is blossoming; the internal sense of mommy and daddy, deciding what is right, what is wrong, what is allowed, and what isn’t. The superego is still very primitive at age three; very black-and-white, “my way or the highway”. It’s really common to see three-year-olds behaving like little tyrants, ordering people around, trying out their new dictatorial tendencies.
So what’s a parent to do? It’s our job to help the little dictator get a taste of democracy; or at least accept the role of Vice President. Help him learn the rules of give and take, taking turns, and asking nicely. These skills take years to develop, but this is a really important time to lay the foundation of how your little one will respond to, and create, rules and order in his life.
Next time Junior starts ordering you around, play with it a bit, but with the ultimate idea in mind that YOU are the boss. If you have time to play, go ahead and follow his rules and orders. But sneak in little requests, like, “oh, that works better when you say please”. Or, “Now that you made me dump out these blocks, let’s clean them up, let’s take turns seeing who can get the blocks into the bin!” If you don’t have time to play, or if he’s asking you to do things that aren’t nice, safe, or allowed, remember: you’re the parent, and he’s counting on you to know better. Say, “I know you want me to jump out the window, but that’s not allowed. We’d get hurt. Let’s jump up and down instead.”
If he throws a tantrum, that’s OK. He’s upset that he’s not the boss — but deep down, he’s also relieved. And over time, with your help, that primitive, controlling little superego of his won’t be quite so tough.