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.
I’m always a bit worried when the feminist discourse is about getting “girls and women into leadership”. Actually, I don’t like the authoritarian, unfair, hirarchical model at all. I don’t just dislike it because within patriarchy it’s usually men who rise to the top. I want my children to be assertive, that’s for sure, but I also want them to be team players and cooperative and to understand and value the contrubution of each and everybody.
I guess the issue is the role of power in our lives. I think part of me has always been attracted to writing and performance because I get to say what I want to say. People might like it or dislike it, or not respond at all, and I will react to that, but that’s a conversation rather than a form of control. At least in my mind! Even if we accept that we do want more women in leadership roles, and I actually am on board with that, I don’t think all leaders need to be domineering. I’ve worked for men and women who aren’t like that at all.
Thanks for this: “I’m always a bit worried when the feminist discourse is about getting “girls and women into leadership”. Actually, I don’t like the authoritarian, unfair, hirarchical model at all. ” I very much agree.
Agreed! There is a particular behavior that manifests amongst small children which is genuinely “bossy’ and they need to learn that it is a fairly anti-social behavior. It is not leadership. It is not assertiveness. It’s I want things my way all the time. Using a catch phrase like “bossy boots” is easy for kids to latch onto. They know what it means, they know how to respond. Using the term bossy to describe an adult however, does seem problematic to me.
I like that adult women are saying, yes, I am bossy. I think we all do what we can in this crazy, sexist world, so if bossy has worked for them then that’s fine with me. I just don’t necessarily need to see a whole generation of bossy people. And Giliell has a good point — we can’t all be leaders! We do need team players too.
I think part of the problem IS the gendered aspect. It’s not that we shouldn’t call children out for being bossy, it’s that this happens much more often with girls than with boys. Behaviour that is seen as acceptable and OK in boys get called out in girls (usually because actually yes, it’s bad and anti-social behaviour.)
I swear, last parents’ night most of the problems in the class could be paraphrased as “most of the boys (who outnumber the girls 2:1) are agressive and can’t behave themselves.”
My son is in 4th grade and my daughter will enter pre-kindergarten next year. I feel like elementary school is a place where girls typically thrive because they can behave and sit still in class. I can see the shift happening now, so I suspect middle school is a whole different playing field, because a lot of typical boy traits suddenly are seen as positives and boys are now able to sit through a class. I don’t know what the answer is to level the playing field in middle school but I kind of suspect that puberty and their social lives have more of an impact than what a teacher says. I think girls probably shrink back because they don’t want to be seen as loud and annoying by the boys. But that was mostly my experience. It will be interesting to experience middle school soon as a parent.