Childrearing

Dear Sheryl Sandberg, Let’s Embrace Calling Girls Bossy Rather Than Banning It

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BOSSYSheryl Sandberg obviously has some hang-ups about her childhood, as we all do. She’s one of the most powerful women in the world and a boss – but she was scarred by the way people responded to her natural lack for leadership. Realizing we have a broad double-standard for girls and boys, she’s started a campaign to ban the word “bossy.” I see where she’s coming from – but I don’t see why we need to embrace the negative connotations of the word just because there is a “y” attached.

Sandberg tells the Wall Street Journal:

When my brother and sister describe our childhood, they will say that I never actually played as a child but instead just organized other kids’ play. At my wedding, they stood up and introduced themselves by explaining, “Hi, we’re Sheryl’s younger brother and sister … but we’re not really her younger brother and sister. We’re her first employees—employee No. 1 and employee No. 2.”

She’s been a natural leader since childhood. It’s a quality that has served her well, as evidenced by the fact that she is a confident leader who runs one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Still, she has negative associations about her early and consistent success with leadership, because of labels that were thrust upon her. “Bossy” is the one that stands out the most:

From a very young age, I liked to organize—the toys in my room, neighborhood play sessions, clubs at school. When I was in junior high and running for class vice president, one of my teachers pulled my best friend aside to warn her not to follow my example: “Nobody likes a bossy girl,” the teacher warned. “You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.”

The fact that girls, from a young age, may be referred to as “bossy” is something that clearly may affect their self esteems. The WSJ article points out that the definition is almost always appropriated as a female descriptor. Pushy, domineering, overbearing, dictatorial – these are all synonyms offered for the word. Take the letter “y” away and the definition totally changes. The synonyms offered for “boss” are chief, director, top-dog, and bigwig – among others.

So what do we do about this? Sandberg suggests we “ban bossy.”

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.

Pledge to ban bossy.

I like the intention, but also realize that this probably won’t work for kids. Sure, adults may make a conscious effort to stop using it – but grade schoolers? What if we just realize that “bossy” is getting a bad rap?

If we are telling them it’s okay to be “ambitious,” why don’t we just tell them it’s okay to be “bossy?” In my single-parent household, being bossy meant the bills got paid, the kids listened to you and you did the work of two humans. Why should we be ban “bossy?” Bossy is being strong. Bossy is standing up for yourself. Bossy is leading.

Or we can just trust kids to stop calling each other names. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

(photo: iQoncept/ Shutterstock)