A couple weeks ago, we were eating dinner and going around the table sharing our “highs and lows.” One of my sons shared that at school, a couple boys said they didn’t want to play with him because he is too bossy. My other son piped in. “Yeah, the kids at school say that about you a lot.” And as much as my mama bear instinct wanted to protest and pick defend, I knew that this was feedback we needed to address. Because my son? He IS bossy. It’s something that frustrates his siblings, his peers, and his teachers. He is controlling. He is unyielding. He tries to tell others what to do. He dictates orders. He doesn’t consider the feelings of others. He is, in a word, bossy. It’s a negative character trait, and it’s one I’d like to help him extinguish. So we talked about the problem with being bossy, and now we hope that some of it sinks in.
Bossy = assertiveness that is lacking boundaries and empathy.
It’s something that we discuss in our home. It’s a word we use to describe a negative way of interacting with others. As therapists, boundaries and empathy are pretty high on the list of values we want to impart to our kids. Which is why I am completely stumped that there is currently a movement to ban the word “bossy” from our vocabulary.
This week Sheryl Sandberg, facebook CEO and author of the book Lean In, partnered with the Girl Scouts to wage a war on the word “bossy” in a significant social media campaign. I knew about the campaign last week, because I received several emails requesting me to write about it, to contribute a story to the website, and to share their materials. They’ve got an impressive roster of celebrities pushing this messaging, which was inspired by a line in Sheryl’s book:
“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.”
Problem is, sometimes girls have leadership skill, and sometimes they are just being entitled or controlling or cruel. Not every girls who is behaving in a bossy way deserves an affirmation for leadership skills. If I catch my girls (or boys) ordering friends around, refusing to listen to the boundaries of others, or failing to consider how others feel as they act like a tyrant, they certainly won’t be getting an affirmation from me. Being pushy is not a leadership skill. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that “bossy” describes the behavior of most bullies. Should we affirm their leadership?
I do understand that there can be some negative gender stigma associated with assertive women and the word bossy. Sometimes these concepts are confused, and usually it’s directed towards women. I definitely understand the impulse in empowering women to be assertive without the fear of being called bossy. (Or bitchy or nagging or emasculating.) I am completely on board with helping girls be confident and assertive. But the idea that we can’t use the word bossy because it is sometimes misused really rubs me the wrong way. Because sometimes girls are assertive. And sometimes they are bossy. Just because we don’t like the way that word is misappropriated doesn’t mean that children will stop needing some gentle correction about it when they are genuinely being bossy. If we ban the use of every word that could potentially hold some gender stigma, we are going to find that there is little feedback we can give our children about their character development.
I think I’m also put off by the campaign because of the focus on negative semantics. I always think a movement does better when it articulates what it is FOR rather than what is AGAINST. Banning a word doesn’t seem like the first logical step in helping our girls defy the achievement gap. The “ask” of the campaign is for people to pledge to ban the word bossy. Really? Is that the best we can do for our girls? Promising to stop using a word? So far, it seems like the biggest effect this campaign has had is to ignite an argument over semantics. And perhaps I’m being cynical, but the fact that taking the pledge involves a hashtag and social media sharing makes me think that this is less about helping girls and more about promoting a book.There are actually some great resources on empowering girls at the campaigns website, with wonderful ideas for family engagement, But it seems like the pledge should be focused on implementing positive steps for girls, instead of censoring a word that describes a negative character trait.
For my girls, rather than banning bossy, I will continue to help them be assertive. I will do that by encouraging them to verbalize their feelings, encouraging them to to speak their mind, and encouraging them to pursue their passions. I will also continue to model being a woman who is not afraid to lead. But in all of these things, I will continue to encourage them to respect the boundaries of others and consider how their actions make others feel. And if they are stomping on the rights of others, I will use the word bossy. Because sometimes it fits.