Motherhood

Ban the Word “Bossy”

We’re about to put the boys to bed, but I wanted to post quickly: Have you seen the Ban Bossy campaign? Lean In and Girl Scouts have teamed up to encourage people to stop calling girls “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.”

It really struck a nerve with me. Growing up, I was always labeled “bossy,” and, at 35 years old, I still feel that it’s part of my identity. But it’s good to be a leader, to be ambitious, to give direction, to have strong opinions and to speak up; and we should encourage girls to do so. As Beyoncé says, “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.”

Boss it up, ladies!

P.S. How to talk to little girls.

(Photo by Charles Gullung)

  1. Yep, I’ve been labeled “bossy” for as long as I can remember. My daughter is “bossy” too, but we call her a natural born leader. Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. I’ve been called bossy my whole life, it comes in handy as a teacher, but I don’t view it as bad thing. I can be relied upon to get things done. I try to tell my middle school students (especially the girls) it’s okay to be a little bossy and long as you’re being kind and productive.

  4. I think it’s so interesting to read comments about people never hearing little boys called bossy. I wonder if it’s a regional thing or maybe just a lack of exposure to a wide variety of kids? I work in education (in a range of settings- I’m an independent consultant– work with kids pre-k through high school in inner city and suburbs) and I have elementary aged children myself and I hear boys called bossy all the time! I call my son out for being bossy probably more often than my daughter, simply because he IS bossy and it’s not a good thing. To lead is fabulous, to tell someone what to do and try to control the situation without regard for others is NOT!

  5. Yep, I agree with Amy. There is a difference between showing potential leadership skills and being “bossy”. I agree with the sentiment behind the “ban bossy” campaign, but I disagree with their word choice. Boys can be bossy and so can girls, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. Being a leader, being assertive, and communicating clearly are great. Being pushy, inflexible, and failing to see others’ perspectives are not- no matter what the gender or age.

  6. Thanks Amy P, my thoughts exactly! Though I do hate the thought of boys being treated differently than girls, for exactly the same behavior.

    I love the way Beyoncé articulates her calm authority. To me, that’s the antithesis of ‘bossy’.

  7. I don’t think the word ‘bossy’ has to be abandoned completely. It sometimes really does apply. I will probably avoid the word simply because labels like that can be self-fulfilling (they have been for me).

    But I think we should be more careful to notice when a girl is using good leadership qualities and praise those, just like we are apt to do with boys. All kids should be told when they’re being pushy and demanding – maybe they’ll correlate times when kids don’t want to hang out with them with when they’re showing poor behaviour.

    For kids, I think leadership is encouraging others, both to perform better and to join in, it’s standing up for themselves and not being afraid to suggest new ideas.

    Bossiness is being pushy and controlling and demanding. And YES, sometimes our children are those things. ALL kids are. Please don’t just assume they’re being a leader, or standing up for themselves. They might simply be standing ON someone else instead.

  8. Their intentions seem great. Girls and women definitely need to be more encouraged to seek out leadership roles, but I just don’t think trying to put a ban on the word is going to be the most effective approach.

  9. As a mother of a three year old and one year old, this article just reinforced my need to be more mindful of any negative labeling with anybody….child or adult, it’s a bad habit I’m trying to break…instead of calling my daughter “bossy” in a certain situation, there is a bigger lesson if we try being kind and fair!

  10. As a mother of a three year old and one year old, this article just reinforced my need to be more mindful of any negative labeling with anybody….child or adult, it’s a bad habit I’m trying to break…instead of calling my daughter “bossy” in a certain situation, there is a bigger lesson if we try being kind and fair!

  11. As a mother of a three year old and one year old, this article just reinforced my need to be more mindful of any negative labeling with anybody….child or adult, it’s a bad habit I’m trying to break…instead of calling my daughter “bossy” in a certain situation, there is a bigger lesson if we try being kind and fair!

  12. It is never okay to ban words. This sort of campaign, while feminist and super on the outside, is part of a troubling trend. Can we quit banning things?

  13. It is never okay to ban words. This sort of campaign, while feminist and super on the outside, is part of a troubling trend. Can we quit banning things?

  14. This is so true! I’ve always been called bossy, and I realized I just started accepting it, even when men weren’t branded the same way.

    To other commenters who are mentioning children – I think it’s a very different thing when a 3-year old is attempting to assert “leadership” over adults than when an adult female is attempting to “lead” other adults in appropriate settings. I totally admit that I’m bossy with my boyfriend when we cook dinner together, but I’m a leader in the workplace and community.

  15. I do applaud girls being told to be leaders, but i agree that sometimes kids are just bossy.

    I was the timid kid that really did not like the bossy kids – they were just mean! I hope that this doesn’t mean kids won’t be disciplined when they get out of hand though. As the timid kid, I do wonder what it would have made me think to hear the bossy kids praised for being leaders, when i thought they were being jerks. Would it have made me start telling people what to do? Or would it have made me feel bad about how I am naturally (like i’m destined to be a sheep following the herd). I don’t know…

  16. Hmmmm…..I think that both boys and girls need to learn how to be assertive and leaders without being rude,arrogant, and thoughtless. Some children do act bossy in every sense of the word. So really, encourage this? I think not. Being a leader is so much more than telling people what to do and how to do it. A leader inspires people. Yes, there is a difference between telling people what to do and inspiring them.

  17. As the mom of 2 boys, one in middle school, I see a very different side of the situation. There are so many organizations devoted to girl empowerment, in some ways it feels like the boys are being left behind. If boys don’t enter the fraternity of high intensity sports, they don’t always have a network of confidence building. To be honest, these sorts of generalizations drive me crazy. It suggests that all girls will be shut down for being “bossy” and boys will always be embraced for being assertive. I think the world we live in now celebrates leadership skills from boys and girls. I see girls doing Lego robotics, girls in organizations like NCL and girls generally doing better on college placement tests. Its time to stop getting so fixated on the bossy thing….I just don’t see any of the scenarios described playing out in the tween world!

  18. I definitely call out my son for being bossy and use that word (along with “tyrant”). It’s not about girls and boys, or assertiveness. Bossy does not equal “leader,” it’s more like “dictator.” Kids need to learn they can’t control every single person around them and make them do exactly what they want.

  19. It’s possible that the dynamics of play are different between boys and girls. Boys don’t tend to order their peers to do something a certain way, wheras girls can indeed take on a tone that sounds more bossy than leader-like.

  20. Oh I loved this post, took me a long time to unpack it which ended in a rambly 1am blogpost (the best kind)

    http://mindfulgrateful.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/miss-bossy.html

    But ultimately it was about calling undesirable behaviour by name, not attributing it to someone’s personality.

    There’s a spark at the start of bossy, a dogged pursiut of a goal which is pretty special. We’ve gotta train that sparkly diamond, and polish off the rough edges by helping people listen more or communicate their ideas more clearly, but never squash it down by saying ‘bossy’

    http://www.mindfulgrateful.blogspot.com

  21. Oh yes, thank you for sharing this! I was definitely “bossy” child — when I was a little girl, it was adorable how my pre-school teacher called me “Little Chief.” But as I got older I think my confidence and ability to assert myself {and lead the crowd whenever necessary or possible!} got less and less cute to some, especially the boys in my family by whom I am far outnumbered! Luckily, being that I’m an Aries, they were never able to stamp out my “bossy” streak like they wanted and I’m still comfortable calling the shots and being a leader. If I don’t do it, who will!? ;)

    Unfortunately, not all little girls grow up to hold onto that “bossy” streak, that leadership quality! Confidence in their leadership skills is something I hope to encourage in all the little girls in my life, from my nieces to my own daughters, if I have them someday! Thanks for sharing this post :)

  22. I honestly don’t know how I feel about this, because I feel like it’s an attempt to treat the effect rather than the cause.
    If we work towards eradicating the mentality that is causing people to call girls “bossy”, then the word will go away on its own. I mean, how many times do you hear the word “hussy” said non-ironically these days? Or “spinster”? Language is important, but it’s the expression of mentality, not the cause of it.

    Having said that, I grew up in Russia, and I was the embodiment of the word “bossy” – sometimes good, with creating and orchestrating weeks-long complex game stories with gangsters and police and tea parties all worked into scenarios, and a couple of times bad – with telling people not to play with a kid I did not like. I was never “called out”. “Bossy” is not part of our vocabulary, because the national mentality is different, and women (though discriminated against in some areas) are never thought of as someone unable to lead.

  23. Love this post! It is an interesting concept really. I was called ‘bossy’ at a very young age and i was indeed a very bossy little girl. I wish that instead of telling me to stop it all together, my mum had helped me to better channel this aspect of my personality to use it more adequately – to assert myself properly and with respect, to lead while listening to others’ opinions and step back when necessary… I believe it would have been more constructive and i definitely plan to do that with my own kids in the future if they inherit my bossy personality.
    Hope that makes sense, i’m French and my English is not perfect i’m afraid… :)