Don't Say "Bossy"

I like this picture going around FB, even though the quote is sloganny and simplistic.

My firstborn is a boy, and was an only child for 6 years. During that time, I noticed some patterns in what “boys’ moms” tended to say and what “girls’ moms” tended to say, and one of them was: moms of daughters frequently described their girls as “bossy.”  I think I noticed it initially because I never thought of my son as bossy.  Then, when I thought about this more, I realized I never heard a mother of a son call him  “bossy.”  But it was common hear among mothers of girls. I immediately wondered: if I had a daughter, would she seem bossy to me?

And I noticed that almost always, the girl being described didn’t seem bossy to me at all. Granted, I had a distance on this because I had only a son, but I was often surprised when “bossy” was handed out because mostly the girl seemed to be acting opinionated, charismatic, enthusiastic, but not “bossy” in the sense that “bossy” also involves a real failure of empathy, an inability to “get” when it is time to keep your opinion to yourself, listen and follow. 

Or — sometimes her grabby, want-to-get-my-way, inconsiderate routine was really unempathic and truly out of line, but even then, typically, I’d think, well, that’s annoying, but it’s actually just “childish” behavior.  And this person is a child.

Meanwhile, the boys also did the grabby, want-to-get-my-way, inconsiderate routine, the very same routine, and it was equally annoying from them, and all too often the adults around them didn’t call them names, but also didn’t teach them how to do it any better.  All too often, when boys got “bossy”, their grown-ups expressed pride in the young tyke’s cojones, or else apologetically explained that he couldn’t help it because that’s how boys are.

I think it’s worth being careful with our language.  It’s important for all kids to learn to express their opinions with a little charisma and a good sense of audience.  They’ll all mangle it for a while – some will be too hesitant to express opinions until they find their voice, and others will steamroll over everyone else’s opinions until they learn some moderation.  In the end, helping them learn this is important because these are leadership skills.  We owe it to a daughter not to suggest that venturing an opinion (and risking doing it boorishly) is so horrible that we’ll call her names for having a personality.  It’s exactly in the low-stakes world of the playground that she should learn to do that stuff with our help.  And we owe it to a son to do right by him, too, to be sure that when we admire and encourage budding “leadership,” we’re also teaching him to be mindful of his audience.  Acting like he’s not capable of basic empathy is treating him like an idiot. It’s not fair to boys or to girls if we give up on them.