I’m Not Bossy, I Just Have Better Ideas

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4 May 2013 by thaliakr

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Is ‘bossy’ a sexist term? When did you last hear a boy or man get called ‘bossy’?

Thomas (father of a wonderful little girl) put me onto this article by Kathleen Deveny which argues that:

We ask girls to walk a fine line between being strong and being likable. It’s a line we typically allow boys to trample.

She says she observes her daughter being ‘a little bossy,’ as she herself was as a child and perhaps still is (she is, after all, a boss):

But I am going to stop fretting about bossiness for one simple reason: I have rarely heard anyone describe a little boy as bossy. Boys are assertive and confident, active and rambunctious. They may also be aggressive, wild or disruptive. But bossy is a label that parents, babysitters and teachers apply most often to the sugar-and-spice gender. Little girls hurl it at each other as an epithet. It may be partly because girls tend to be more verbal than boys, says Wendy Mogel, a child psychologist in L.A., and that comes off as bossy. She also believes that because of both nature and nurture, girls take more responsibility than boys for their social environment. Which leads to those “You sit there. No! Over there” discussions I sometimes hear my daughter having with her friends.

And she relates this difference in how we treat boys and girls with the double standards women experience in professional life:

“Telling other people what to do is a leadership quality,” says Jennifer Allyn, a managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “There’s another B word at work that we’re all afraid of.” And that’s the essence of it. Our fear is that bossy girls grow up to be those abrasive women around our offices. (Oops, maybe that’s me!) That kind of behavior might be tolerated from men in authority. But we demand that even the most powerful women play nice. Men are respected; women are liked. Allow your daughter to be bossy on the playground, and she may just grow up to be like Hillary Clinton. (Oh, my God! The first serious female presidential candidate! Get that kid into therapy!)

[Read the rest of the article at The Daily Beast.]

I hadn’t thought much about the gender angle on this until now, but I think Deveney is right. ‘Bossy’ is used almost exclusively to stigmatise assertive behaviour in girls and women. It should be eliminated from our vocabulary.

I tend not to use the word bossy about anyone at all because I found it so hurtful as a child. It wasn’t an inaccurate description (!) but it’s definitely one of those words that is used to paint someone more negatively than the behaviour it describes.

If children are being bossy, they need to learn to communicate better and share power, but they’re not bad people. It’s not like they’re being dishonest or violent or unkind. The improvement we want to see is a matter of nuance and maturity; the problem is more like being tactless than being nasty.

Like some other words that tend to stick to children (careless, shy and brainy come to mind – what else?) ‘bossy’ is a word that can hurt and haunt, so I don’t see any need to use it on anyone, male or female.

With all those things, I imagine we are better to describe the behaviour than to label the person. Even better would be describing the behaviour and skills we want our kids to learn:

  • I think Sarah might want you to listen to her ideas as well as tell her yours.
  • Asking is often better than telling.
  • Make sure you take turns choosing the game.

Thoughts?

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13 thoughts on “I’m Not Bossy, I Just Have Better Ideas

  1. andrew says:

    The blogger you’re linking to is Kathleen Deveny

    Catherine Deveny is a crass “comedian” who we’re blighted with over on this side of the ditch. There is little chance she’d have expressed ideas so clearly and with such an absence of profanity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_Deveny

    Persuading other people what to do, and to convince them to come along is a leadership quality. Telling, without attendant persuasions and reasons, would come across as (I’m trying to think of another word than the verboten “b” word). as underlings you may not like the reasons, but you have to respect the authority of someone who has rank. it’s hard with kids when you have no clear hierarchy, and it is by willpower or charisma that you convince others that your ideas are worth following.

    Is it possible that girls get tagged as bossy as might suggest direction without attendant reasoning as with stereotypical feminine interactions if you are on the person’s wavelength you should understand where they’re coming from.

    my reasoning might be expressed poorly, but the first coffee of monday has yet to hit the synapses, and teething infant insisted on joining us in bed at 4am.

  2. A friend staying with us was doing a fantastic job playing with my loud but enthusiastic boys in the pool yesterday. She called Jonah “bossy”. It was so apt! :)

  3. Jody Kilpatrick says:

    I have a bossy boy (dictator) but yes, I expect he will change his tune and I will change my term once he’s no longer 2.5. For now it is really important to him that we all do things the same way, together, his way. ALL of us. NOW. Thali I wonder if as he gets older he will be socialied to care less whether others are on board with his ideas, whereas a girl might tend to be socialised to care more about gathering, community, getting people on board. So a boy might just do his thing, others can take or leave it, and he may well be a leader. A girl might be inclined to try more to get others in on doing her thing, and she may be considered bossy. Scratchy thoughts badly strung together without enough disclaimers about stereotypes of socialisation etc, but there’s bound to be something profound in there, eh? :)

  4. Alex says:

    I have a bossy boy, too. I have been trying to teach him about getting others on board, or taking it in turns to be the “leader”, but with little success so far. He tends to decide to just play on his own if others won’t do what he wants. Particularly when he encounters someone just as bossy as he is – which it looks like his little sister is turning out to be! I see more clashes ahead… I’m hopeful they’ll eventually be able to resolve these things amicably for themselves, but at the moment there’s a lot of sibling squabbling, and parental intervention (of varying degrees of patience and understanding…)
    I’ve been known to describe both of them as “bossy boilers” (a phrase nicked from Thomas) from time to time, but I should probably stop doing that. Will have to work harder on employing the language suggested at the end of your post.
    On a positive note, though, this is just what I’ve observed at home. I’ve never yet had a report from pre-school suggesting there is a problem with his bossiness (perhaps because he’s a boy?) or reporting any difficulty in his relations with other, so maybe he just saves it all for me (or maybe I’m just over sensitive to it)!

  5. Caroline says:

    I know some bossy boys too & would call them that just as easily as I would use the term for girls. You are right though that I’m more likely to think of a woman as being bossy (in a negative way) rather than a man. I wonder at what age that changes over and boys/men stop being called bossy?
    Also I think there’s a difference between telling a child that they are bossy and telling a child that they are being bossy – hopefully criticising the behaviour rather than the character of the child doesn’t make quite such a dent in the self-esteem.

  6. Alex says:

    I have to say I’ve been haunted by this post recently. “Bossy” seems to be a term more and more frequently used by others to describe my son, and I am really starting to hate it. Friends who use it assure me that they don’t mean anything negative by it, but it still stings and sounds like criticism to me… It’s just not a nice word. And I have no idea what – if anything – I should be doing to try to moderate his behaviour before he starts school. It has helped, though, to come back here and re-read the paragraph putting “bossy” in its proper context: at least he’s not being mean, or unkind, or violent.

    On the plus side, I guess it means it’s not really a sexist term around here, right?!

    • A bit like men feeling shamed into waxing – this isn’t the kind of equality we’re after!

      Your son is a delightful little boy, full of ideas and words, and (thinking of the original article I linked to), particularly socially articulate and capable. He may well be ahead of his male peers on this stuff for a while.

      Do other children use the ‘b’ word to or about him too, or just other parents?

      Not that I’m claiming expert insight here, but I’m inclined to think that if he’s oblivious to any problems with his assertive social style at the moment, there probably isn’t any problem to worry about as far as school is concerned.

      Teachers around here may have more insight to offer?

      Even for girls, being labelled bossy isn’t something you can’t outrun if you decide it isn’t working for you in your friendships/class relationships. And for a boy it’s probably even less of a liability. One day he may realise for himself there are better ways to interact, but if it’s not causing him any trouble now, there’s probably no hurry.

      When it comes to hearing this from other parents, would it help you to come up with a stock response? I’ve been practising this lately for when kids are called ‘shy’ in my hearing (which I think is often pejorative in our culture). I reframe immediately with ‘she likes to suss people out for a bit, which is a great idea.’

      Maybe something like:

      ‘he has lots of ideas’
      ‘it’s really important to him that we do things together/follow the rules’ (thinking of Jody’s comment above)
      ‘he really likes having everyone on the same page’
      ‘he enjoys practising being a leader’

      None of those are passive-aggressive, they really do just describe what’s going on and hopefully educate your interlocutors to think beyond cliched labels.

      Very keen to hear more thoughts about this.

      • Alex says:

        Thank you for such a rapid and thoughtful response.

        To be honest, I think the problem is mostly just with my reaction, really. It’s only (so far) other parents who’ve commented on it, and they do tend to follow up with “oh, I just mean he’s very confident and assertive” when they see me cringe at the B word. (In which case, I’d rather they just said confident and assertive to start with!) The other children on the whole tend to go along with it, and generally seem to enjoy playing with him. But I have had a couple of people comment that their children play differently with Marcus (i.e. are more biddable), which I am struggling to see as a positive thing – just as I don’t want to squash his confidence and bounce, I don’t like to think of him squashing that of his friends…

        I think you’re right, and a lot of it is probably just down to the fact that he’s normally the oldest in any group of friends (and will be the oldest in his class). I keep resolving to not interfere and let them figure it out for themselves, and I keep failing to do so. Must try harder!

  7. […] I’m Not Bossy I Just Have Better Ideas […]

  8. nookatee says:

    I think the term “bossy” is usually applied to girls (in my limited experience – i have an 18 m.o. daughter) and not to boys because boys aren’t usually ‘bossy’. In my short experience, boys are jerks and take other kids toys and push kids out of the way, but they rarely seem to tell other kids what to do. This is something I see girls doing – telling other what to do – if I’m to grossly overgeneralize. I suspect this is because girls typically develop language before boys while boys develop motor skills before girls.
    I think when other people apply terms to a child, it’s up to the parents to help the child determine whether those terms are good or bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being “bossy”, especially not for a small child.

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