On Being Bossy


our little one striking her best “listen to me” pose

Maybe you’ve seen them – the eye-catching posts, tweets, and videos of female celebrities proclaiming things like “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”.   #BanBossy – the latest initiative from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In empire – has taken off.

#BanBossy aims to eliminate the double standard many girls and women face when they exercise leadership – being dismissed as “bossy” instead of respected as leaders.   Many people love #BanBossy – lauding its modern-day feminist empowerment and the resources it provides for teaching girls leadership.  Others hate it – criticizing the movement for making stats up, making mountains out of molehills, and being hypocritical, especially since none of the uber-wealthy celebs who are the face of the movement seem worse off for having been called bossy.  Us – we’re conflicted.

We’re highly skeptical of #BanBossy’s claim that the desire to avoid being called bossy is the main reason girls stop pursuing leadership roles (it certainly didn’t stop B; she frequently was called bossy and in college was sometimes even known as “The General”!).  We question the notion that bossy is a label generally mis-applied and only to females.  And we are confounded by Sandberg’s assertion that society neither values nor encourages ambition, drive, or executive leadership skills in girls.  That certainly hasn’t been our experience.

However, we are all for getting rid of double standards, especially ones that could harm our two daughters.  We also completely buy into the notion that labeling kids with negative characteristics is counterproductiveResearch has proven that negative labeling – repeatedly telling kids they are bossy, for example – both shames kids, putting them on the defensive, and tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So we are on board with banning the word bossy.

Still, we worry that simply banning the word bossy could backfire.  Like well-known blogger, radio host & dad Matt Walsh, we think it is as, if not more, important to acknowledge that true bossy behavior is unacceptable.  Bossy is a bad word, sure, when used as a dismissive for anyone exercising positive leadership.  But the reality is that sometimes people – males and females – are not simply being assertive or self-confident or independent or leaders, they actually are acting bossy, which is defined variously as given to ordering people about, being domineering, dictatorial, or overly authoritative.  One can be both the boss and bossy.

We believe it’s age-appropriate for young kids – both boys and girls – to act bossy at times; it’s part of how they practice navigating and making sense of the world around them and of their place in it.   We were reminded of this during our firstborn’s parent-teacher conference this spring.  Her teachers mentioned that the girls in her PreK class were testing out bossing each other around.  Our sweet, beautiful, angel was no exception. She is an avid artist who spends hours practicing her art.  Her teachers noted that she recently began taking advantage of classmates looking to her for drawing guidance, by demanding they draw princesses and butterflies exactly like she does.  Bossy behavior.

Bossiness is certainly not a behavior we desire our girls to exhibit.  Strong leadership, drive, ambition, independence, executive functioning are.  In fact, bossiness is not a behavior anyone needs to exhibit. Experts predict that the leadership skills needed for the future are interpersonal and socio-emotional ones: the ability to collaborate effectively, resilience, grit, empathy, compassion, and determination.  Bossiness has nothing to do with it.

So we think that, by ignoring the prevalence of actual bossiness, #BanBossy falls short.  But it’s also where #BanBossy can make a real difference.  Instead of just declaring the word bossy off-limits, #BanBossy could also direct its star-studded media power to declare bossy behavior off limits, and work to eliminate it, too.  The world would be a nicer place if some people didn’t dismiss strong females as bossy.  But think how much better it could be if no one ever acted bossy!

The organized #BanBossy movement could grow this revolution, but we don’t need to wait on them to start it.  Here’s what we are trying to do to #BanBossy – both the word AND the behavior – in our home:

When our children act bossy, we don’t shame them with negative labels: “you’re being bossy” or “no one likes a bossypants.”  Instead, we try to work on the behavior by 1) giving attention primarily to the victim, e.g.: hugging her and saying “I see you are feeling really sad and mad because your sister’s ordering you around.”; and 2) after the heat of the moment passes, opening a two-way dialogue about bossy behavior and its effects.  We try our best to ask questions like “I noticed you were giving your sister a lot of orders this afternoon and you didn’t seem to be listening to what she wanted to do.  How do you think that made her feel?  How would you feel if she was ordering you around that much?”   Sometimes we share our own experiences with bossiness in an age-appropriate way, e.g. “Once I was playing with my sister and I kept telling her to do x. She didn’t want to.  When I kept yelling at her to do it, that made her feel annoyed and not listened to.  She stopped playing with me after her feelings got hurt.”  We also try to ask for their suggestions for better ways to interact.

Generally, we try to point out and discuss positive leadership behaviors by characters in books and tv shows.  When we observe our kids engaging in positive leadership behaviors, we try to remember to later praise that specific behavior.  And, most importantly, we are working on regulating ourselves and our own behavior – to model non-bossy behavior.

Yes, this is a slow process that requires a lot of effort on our part.  We’re nowhere near perfect at controlling our own behavior, especially when we’re tired or stressed.  And, yes, our kids undoubtedly still will act bossy sometimes.  They’re little kids after all, and still learning.  But we believe the long-term benefits for our kids of our trying to live up to this ideal are worth the effort.

What’s your take on #BanBossy?  Do you think #BanBossy can or should take on actual bossy behavior?  Will you #BanBossy in your home?

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