Parents often can be heard telling their young child to act more maturely: “You’re a big boy now, so you should use the toilet,” or “You’re too big to make such a mess.” Parents use “big boy” as a discipline tool and as a way to change their child’s behavior, either by appealing to his desire to do what older children do or by shaming him with a comparison to younger children.
The problem with urging your child to be a “big boy” is that your child, who already wants to act older and more capable, feels pressure to change and do things he may not be able to do. When he can’t act like a “big boy,” he may feel bad about parts of himself that he usually can’t control and about not being able to please you. In a public restroom, a mother changed her son’s diaper while telling him, “You’re a big boy now. You’re too old for diapers.” He looked ashamed. Yet, if he had been ready to use the toilet, he would have given up diapers on his own. Exhortations to be “bigger” won’t help your child, they’ll only make him feel bad about himself.
In a similar situation, a woman took her grandson to a toy store and asked him to pick something out. When he chose a stuffed animal, she said, “Oh, no. Not that. You’re too big to want that.” When adults say such things, they tell a child that his feelings and desires are unacceptable, and that he should be acting differently.
If you think your child is not as “big” as he should be, try to understand why. He might use baby talk or play with a younger child’s toys because of a new sibling, the start of day care or nursery school, or simply to get more attention. And since each child develops at his own pace, your child may just not be physically ready for the behavior changes you’d like to see. By temperament, he may be a child who cries more than other children or who needs more closeness and security. Also, children struggle as they grow, and for every step forward, there’s sometimes a short step backward to earlier behavior.
All children have a strong drive to be independent and imitate older people. If you accept your child as he is and wait patiently without pressuring him, you’ll see him begin to act “bigger” on his own.