A mother I was talking with the other day described her 8-year-old daughter as “bossy.” I asked her about it, and she talked about how her daughter had, from the time she was very young, organized games and activities for the other children in the neighborhood. I then asked if she had ever heard the word “bossy” used about a boy. She thought about it, and then said she never had, going on to talk about how she was called “bossy” as a child and knew it was not said in a positive way.
Sheryl Sandberg, one of the few female internet executives and author of the best-selling book Lean In, discusses this at length. If being “bossy” is a bad thing in a girl, it is likely that this contributes to the tendency of many girls to become more quiet and withdrawn through adolescence and into adulthood. Ms. Sandberg, following the data of numerous social science studies, argues that the words children hear have an effect throughout life, and claims this is one of many factors contributing to women being so underrepresented in leadership positions in business and government. Believing so strongly in the power of words, Ms. Sandberg has partnered with the Girl Scouts as well as celebrities including Beyonce, Jane Lynch, and many others to create the “Ban Bossy” movement.
As we might expect of anything with such star power, the Ban Bossy initiative has garnered a great deal of attention, both positive and negative. But regardless of the criticisms, it is always important to be aware of the messages we are sending to children, and the unintended consequences of labels. Mental health professionals, social scientists, teachers and parents are all coming to realize that being successful in life requires characteristics that are typically associated with both masculinity and femininity. Leadership, confidence, and strength have traditionally been seen as things to encourage in boys and be cautious of in girls, while nurturing, emotional openness, and a willingness to admit being wrong have been considered “too feminine” for growing boys.
So, how can we encourage each child to grow into his or her best self? First, listen to the words you use to yourself, as well as those you say aloud. Assess your own standards – what values and characteristics do you hold dear and want to develop? Encourage these in each child. Remember that hard work, honesty, concern for others, kindness, strength of convictions, cooperation, dedication, and traits and actions too many to list are important for all people, regardless of gender, age, or abilities. And remember that the words we use can hold tremendous power.
So, does the daughter need to stop being “bossy?” Maybe, if she combines her strengths in leadership and planning with empathy and effective communication, she can become a captain of industry like Sheryl Sandberg. Or maybe she will choose a completely different path. Let’s just hope that she, and every other child, can see her strengths and develop them.
Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist