You may have heard that we are in the midst a national crisis: miniature would-be CEOs everywhere are suffocating under the weight of the word “bossy,” so Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation LeanIn.org, together with the Girl Scouts, has launched a campaign to ban “bossy” from our vocabulary:
When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.
Well, the internet has responded. Many women (including, Bell Hooks, for example) would rather embrace bossy than ban it. While it’s interesting to hear from a diverse spectrum of women about their personal experiences, these reflections just don’t seem all that relevant to the kids I see around me.
In the child-focused — dare I say child-obsessed — parenting world of Washington, DC, I don’t see a whole bunch of assertive girls getting that bad “bossy” rap. What I see are girls and boys who expect the world to be what they want, when they want it. I see the potential for narcissistic assholes.
I also don’t see droves of assertive boys who’ve been lauded with praise and hailed as the future leaders of their generation. If that were the case, my son would be student of the year and my daughter would be banished to a corner somewhere. Instead, I’m told my son talks too much and is inflexible, but when my daughter takes a toy from an unsuspecting toddler and declares it her own, people praise her. Wow, she knows what she wants and she goes for it! Indeed.
I don’t dispute the studies cited at LeanIn.org. I’ve certainly seen girls underestimate their abilities while boys do the opposite. I’ve seen the way girls always seem to be praised for their good behavior while mothers of boys watch our progeny bounce off the walls. But my suspicion — and it’s just that since I’m no social scientist — is that the cause of this effect is much more complicated than our linguistic choices.
I don’t want my daughter to be “bossy.” There’s a reason the word “bossy” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “assertive.” It’s because bossy people are also sometimes jerks. I understand that sometimes you need to be a jerk if you want to be the boss, but I don’t want either of my kids to grow up to be jerky bosses. That’s the concern that feels real to me, not the fear that my daughter might be discouraged from taking charge. It’s possible that I’m wrong, and all of these demanding and driven kids will be the best uncompromising visionaries this world has ever seen. But I think I’ll take my chances and keep “bossy” in my linguistic wheelhouse. With my kids, I sometimes need it.