One day I was walking down the hall at a school where I work regularly and saw the time-out staff, Alex, with a seven-year-old named Thomas. Thomas’s hands were clenched into fists on the side of his body and he was red-faced, with tears streaming down his cheeks, screaming, “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME! YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”
Alex, looked tired and a little frustrated as he tried to get through to Thomas, “Look, Thomas, you’ve got to listen to me! If you don’t come into the time-out room, I’m going to take you to isolation.”
“YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”, Thomas yelled back.
“Thomas, you’ve got to stop saying that. You’ve got to do what I say.”
Still crying and screaming, Thomas repeated, “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME! YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”
Alex saw me and said “Joe, can you do something with this kid? He just keeps telling me I’m not the boss of him. He’s got to learn to follow my directions.”
“Well I can try,” I said.
I stepped up to Thomas and immediately he shouted at me, “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME! YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”
I put my hands up to indicate “I surrender” and said, “You’re right. I am not the boss of you.”
Thomas screamed it again, “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!” with tears still streaming down both cheeks.
“That’s right. I am definitely not the boss of you, Thomas. You are the boss of you.”
Still crying, he got a little quieter and said again, “You’re not the boss of me.”
I repeated it again, “I am not the boss of you” then after a pause I said, “But you’ve got a decision to make. You can calm down and come into the time-out room, or if you’re standing in the hall screaming and crying, you have to go to isolation. Do you want to go to isolation?”
To my surprise he said, “Yes!”
I said, “Okay, come on.” At which point he took my hand and we walked quietly to the isolation room together.
Children have power and it’s important to recognize it. When a child is being oppositional and defiant, sometimes the first step to defusing the situation is to acknowledge his power. Children with strong feelings of omnipotence cling to their perceived power because it’s their safety line to keeping control of a scary world. The language I use when dealing with an oppositional situation, whether it’s eight-year-old Thomas or my seventeen-year-old stepdaughter, is always more effective when I acknowledge the power of the person I’m dealing with. Once you’ve clearly acknowledged the power of the other, it becomes much easier to clearly set boundaries.
The truth is, I’m not the boss of Thomas. I think we get into trouble when we think we can make kids do what they don’t want to do. When I do staff trainings I like to tell them, “You are not in charge of behavior. The children are in charge of behavior. You are in charge of consequences. If you don’t like the behavior, change the consequences.” In the end teachers and parents are really only in charge of motivation. If a child doesn’t want to do something he isn’t going to do it, unless you make it in his best interest.