I am lucky enough to be part of a group of mothers from all over the world who know each other primarily on the Internet. Each of these women feels like a best friend to me — someone I can tell my deepest secrets to, ask the most difficult questions of, and complain to about things that shouldn’t be complained about. Most of them I would not recognize on the street, yet they have done more to help me raise my child for the last six years than anyone or anything else, offering advice and empathy utterly free of judgment.
We ask each other questions like, “Should my nipples be excreting yellow goo?” or “What is the best brand of dry shampoo?” These are helpful topics of discussion, no doubt, but when the group really kicks into high gear are the times we dive deep into the fleshy meat of parenting. With mothers on several different continents dealing with every kind of family situation, every kind of health situation, every kind of pain, every worry and every fear, this private online forum is a place for us to dialogue freely on the more theoretical questions of how we raise our children and to get answers from perspectives we may never have considered otherwise.
Recently, a member of our group posed the question: “What do you think about bossy’ girls?” This sparked a very long and thoughtful conversation about the topics of female empowerment, learning to be a helpful part of a functioning society, and how to parent (but not over-parent) strong girls. My first comment on the topic, which reflected my gut reaction, was this: “Amy Poehler said it best: I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading.’ I tell [my daughter] Scarlet to boss the f*** out of people. I call her a boss all the time. LIKE A BOSS!'”
Please excuse my language (I did warn you that it was a private group), but my point was very simple and clear to me right from the get-go: Boys who are bossy are called leaders. Girls who are bossy are told to simmer down. Perhaps my daughter might alienate a few kindergarten friends by being too bossy, but as her mother, I am certainly not going to be the one to tell her to be more submissive. Why not? Because she is 5 years old and if she’s too obnoxiously “bossy”, she will figure it out soon enough. The world shushes girls before they even know they are being shushed — I’m not going to contribute to that line of repression. I’m also not the arbiter of how women should be. It is not my job to tell any woman how to exist, including my own daughter. I give my best advice when asked, then let her take it from there. I stop her from physically harming herself, I tell her the truth about the world as I see it, and if she has an issue with a friend at school about bossiness or any other concern, I will talk it out with her and put forth my best self in an effort to share what I have learned in an age-appropriate way. But I will not shush her. I will not be the one to tell her to quiet herself. The world will teach her that, if it’s something she needs to be taught. I am her champion.
Many women on the group felt that their daughters needed to learn to work within the boundaries of social relationships; that they saw in their children a tendency to be “bossy” that was actually harming them. As mothers, they see their job as I do — to keep their children from harm — and asked “How do I teach my daughter to get along with everyone, not to boss them around’, so that I can help her make her way in this world more easily?”
This is a reasonable question. Yet my answer was still staunch: No father or mother should tell his or her daughter to stop being “bossy.” In fact, I pointed out what was so obvious to me: No grown person uses the word “bossy.” It is a word for children, like “conceited” was when I was a middle school-er. It is not a word any adult should use while talking to their child — it is child-talk, a graduated form of baby talk, like telling your kid “Mommy has to go potty” instead of “Please excuse me while I use the restroom.” This is not how grown women or men speak to each other. A grown person with overbearing qualities is not “bossy”; whatever their issue is, it is more nuanced than that and requires more words than that to explain. And I believe that children understand nuance and appreciate their parents trying to teach it to them.
Furthermore, in my experience, “bossy” is not a word that male children use. My almost-6-year-old daughter calls ME bossy all the time. She has never called her father bossy. I have heard complaints amongst her friends about who is bossy and who is not; these complaints are never directed at boys. Even on the kindergarten playground, bossy is a derogatory term for females who express their desires. Whether they express their desires with grace or crudeness, they are all lumped into the bucket of “bossy” and learn that “bossy” = bad.
I am not suggesting that daughters who behave rudely, thoughtlessly, and self-centeredly should be encouraged to continue doing so; I am stating that we should not label those girls as “bossy”. It is a word that teaches our daughters to be submissive because the world doesn’t want to know what they want; the world will not give them what they want, and if they want to be liked, they should not say what they want. Instead, let’s teach them how to channel that “bossy” nature, because with the right guidance those rude, demanding, self-centered children will blossom into commanding, respected, self-possessed bosses.
I am lucky enough to be part of this group of women; some who choose to stay at home, some who have to stay at home; some who choose to work, some who have to work. Regardless, each and every one of us would disdain to give up the notion of our own agency over our choices. Each of us can look back on our lives with distinct experiences and lessons learned about what it means to be a woman and see how the choices we made, along with the forces leaned upon us, have landed them where we are today. All of us want our daughters to have as many choices as possible available to them, and even more so, for them to have confidence in making those choices for themselves, their families, and their futures.
Our group dialogue on this subject of “bossy” girls was both fascinating and enlightening. It touched a deep nerve within every one of us. One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, but whom I consider a dear friend, is a Clevel executive and mother of two (one boy, one girl), whose husband is the primary caregiver at home. She struggles with the responsibilities of home and work as we all do, but she is proud of her accomplishments, and I am proud to be her friend. Her words on the subject of “bossy” girls are clear and inspiring:
I’m bossy as all f***. And it has led me to amazing personal success. I think a large part of that was because in my career I ignored everyone who told me to not be so bossy. I’m super conscious of this with my daughter, because she’s already showing the signs of being a highly driven type-A girl who likes to express her thoughts about how things should be done. My instinct in many cases has been to tell her to not be so bossy, but I bite my tongue all the time because those skills are GOOD. Being opinionated is good. Having a strong loud tone in your voice can be good (like when you’re telling a creepy guy to get lost). She just has to learn to use those skills well.
What I really want to do is just remove the word “bossy” from everyone’s vocabulary, because it’s loaded and lazy, and nothing good can come from that. I say “lazy” because rather than describing the actual behavior, people just say “bossy”. And sometimes they mean overbearing, insensitive, pushy, controlling, rude, harpy, UPPITY (gah!), or just plain bi***y. But sometimes it can be used to describe a woman who speaks with a firm voice, or is assertive, extroverted, confident, opinionated, instructive, or just a good old-fashioned leader.
Because we use the word for everything and because most women are too hard on themselves, when we’re accused of being bossy we automatically assume it’s being used in the worst or most negative context. And then we stop ourselves from doing any of it at all. Or in a sweeping safe way, we teach ourselves to lean away from ALL of those qualities, and not be honest in our voice, not voice our true opinion, and not ask for what we need and deserve, because god forbid someone should misread us and declare us rude, or out of line, or pushy or bossy.
So I just don’t use the word “bossy” with my daughter, and I try to describe the actual behavior. We also work hard on empathy, knowing how to be respectful of other people’s choices, and being kind. But we also celebrate when she loudly tells people she doesn’t like how they treat her, or uses her full voice, and applaud her a lot when she is appropriately assertive.
As she gets older, we’ll work on reading the room, understanding that some people’s styles are different than our own, that we are not everyone’s teachers or bosses, that it’s not our job to tell everyone else how things should be, and that letting other people come to lessons on their own time in their own way is sometimes the better choice (but not always). I don’t want her to think she has to be submissive in order to be polite.
It’s all a work in progress though. For both her and me.
As I read these thoughts over and over again, I can’t imagine any better way to articulate what I believe when it comes to raising “bossy” little girls. As a bossy little girl (and now grown woman) myself, I’ve learned many lessons; one of which is that sometimes you need to step back and let another woman speak for you, LIKE A BOSS.
Jaime Morrison Curtis is author of the bestselling book Prudent Advice: Lessons for My Baby Daughter (A Life List for Every Woman), follow up fill-in journal My Prudent Advice, and founding co-editor at Pretty Prudent, the premier design and lifestyle blog providing inspiration and instruction to help anyone create beautiful things, food, and experiences for their friends and family. Follow Jaime on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.