Sometimes there is a word for a behavior or person that it is so accurate that skirting around it to come up with another descriptor is just dishonest. For a lot of us with 5-year-olds — girls or boys — that word is bossy. When my daughter Penny acts bossy, I’m going to let her know it. No matter what Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé say, I am not going to Ban Bossy.
Penny is one of the leaders in her class and the alpha to her little brother’s omega. Most of the time, my wife and I love it. She’s assertive and she knows what she wants. It cracks us up to see how she can convince Simon, who is 2, to do anything. (She is going to get him in so much trouble down the road.) But sometimes, she crosses a line. She goes from assertive to entitled. She transforms from an adorable delegator to a tiny tyrant. It’s not cute, and it is not acceptable.
The issue being raised in the Ban Bossy campaign alleges that if we call girls bossy often enough, they’ll stop being assertive. They’ll shrink from leadership positions and won’t volunteer in class or speak their mind in or out of school. It would be devastating if that happened to my girl, especially if I was one of the causes. If I thought that was a possibility, I would delete the word from my vocabulary today. But I just don’t see it.
I don’t see the gender difference. Maybe it’s because I’m a man. Maybe it’s because my wife and I have pointed out how bossy Simon gets too. I guess neither of us realized before Ban Bossy that other parents have been admiring the little guy’s leadership ability. (Either he is a precocious tyke or, more likely, that is not actually the case.)
The call to ban bossy comes across as arbitrary. It’s catchy and makes a great hashtag, but is bossy used that often to criticize girls and women? Is the word ever used to describe anyone over the age of 11? It’s just so G-rated! If an adult is bossy, there are much better words to call them. (I don’t think they should be banned either.) If a girl can’t be called bossy, should she be called pushy instead? Of course not, because the message is the same. So how many words are we going to need to ban before this campaign comes to an end?
I’m not saying words don’t matter. They do. I’m not saying that women and girls aren’t demeaned by certain words. They are. But my daughter can, at times, be bossy! And that is not a good thing, regardless of gender.
Penny can’t be a leader if no one will follow her. And no one will follow her if she keeps bossing them around. At a certain point, her friends and even her brother will get sick of it. At a certain point, she will become a bully. As caring and loving parents, my wife and I don’t want to let that happen.
I have seen glimpses of Penny’s potential bullying behavior, and it ain’t pretty. Sometimes it’s overt, like when she literally pushes Simon into doing things. Other times it’s more subtle. For example, one of her friends constantly gets in trouble for saying “boobies” and acting inappropriately around her mother. Penny thinks the whole thing is hilarious (both girls do, really), so she eggs her friend on. It leads to a lot of giggles, but her friend inevitably gets a stern talking to and occasionally has to leave the playdate early.
Being a leader means caring for and empathizing with those you are leading. Being bossy, being a bully, is easier because you only have yourself to think about. In fact, you don’t really have to think at all. You just act for your own immediate self-gratification. As a child, this behavior is understandable, but it is not something that deserves encouragement.
I want my daughter to become the wonderful person that she already is in so many ways. I don’t think I could keep her from growing into a strong woman if I tried. My wife and I want her to speak up and assert herself. We also want her to be respectful and listen to others. She can get so loud, focused and determined that she refuses to consider anyone else’s feelings or opinions. She starts issuing edicts to everyone around her. If it were my son behaving this way, would I pat him on the back and tell him, “Job well done”? No. I would say, “Dude, you’re being bossy. Let’s calm down a little and figure this out together.”
The Ban Bossy campaign got a conversation going, which is awesome … and a little ironic. We need to communicate more, not less. I’m not going to ban the word, but I will think about it whenever I use it. I’m not going to stop calling my daughter bossy. I’m going to teach Penny the difference between being bossy and being a leader. I’m going to teach my son the same thing. If my wife and I have done our job right, Penny will already be showing him the difference.