When You Call My Daughter Bossy, You Are Potentially Silencing A Young Woman
By Rachael Watts
Photo © christinacorso/Twenty20
Mar 7, 2019
Guess who gets called bossy a lot? Five-year-old girls. In particular, my five-year-old girl. And the ones calling her bossy? Usually they’re adults.
Sure, she has specific ideas about how games should be played. She loves to be a leader. She likes to choose which characters everyone gets to be, or make up rules about how things should be done. But I’ve also noticed that boys exhibiting the same behaviour aren’t usually labelled as “bossy.”
Whether that’s because expectations of girls' and boys' behaviour are different, or because girls generally are more bossy, I don’t know. I do know I’m sick of it.
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I'm sick of how the word bossy is often thrown around, synonymous with other words that refer to someone having a commanding presence, like leader, loud or opinionated. I guess you could say my problem stems from the incorrect use of the word.
Girls who take on a leadership role are often told that they are being “bossy” and the negative connotations of the term suggest that bossy behaviour is bad. This negative association may lead to the conclusion that if a young girl wants to be liked, they should be less bossy. This teaches girls to be a little quieter and to back away from leadership roles out of fear of not fitting in.
And since a five-year-old isn't known for tactfulness, this impossible expectation can set them up for the confusing choice between being considered bossy or a pushover.
My approach: appreciate the leadership qualities that so many girls and women show without making them feel badly about it.
If we want to raise strong women, we have to raise strong girls. And that starts with reframing the words we choose to describe them. When one of my kids is upset, I try to give them the language to be more specific. The same goes with bossy. Sure, someone might actually be acting bossy, but we can also say someone is making all the decisions, or not giving anyone else a choice. Words are powerful and when kids hear more specific language, they get a better understanding of how someone is feeling because there is less to infer.
Encourage Girls to Take Up Space
Media often portrays an ideal standard of women (like to be small in every way). Girls are taught to be quiet and nice. Implicitly they are taught that being small in both body and voice is desirable. But that’s not what I want for my girls. I want my kids to take up space. They can’t please everyone, and not everyone will like them or their ideas. That's OK — in fact, it’s great. Healthy conflict is a part of life and I want to give them the tools to disagree with someone in a constructive way.
Teach Kids Their Opinions Matter
Do I always agree with my kids? Nope. Do they have strong opinions on things that drive me nuts? For her entire third year of her life, my daughter demanded chocolate for breakfast. While my kids don’t have a choice with some decisions, I try to give them choices about some things every day. They choose what to wear as long as it’s seasonally appropriate, they get to choose some of the meals we eat each week and they get to decide an activity we’ll do on the weekend. I like to encourage their opinions because it makes way for discussion — and resolution, when opinions differ. Part of life is learning to respect opinions, even if you don’t agree with them.
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Demonstrate to Kids That They Have a Voice
I don’t love it when my children make constant demands of me, but I do love when they stand up for themselves or other people. If they don’t like or agree with something, I encourage them to say a loud no. By teaching them the power of no, I hope they’ll learn to stand up for what they think is right and set healthy boundaries for themselves throughout their lives.
The words we choose to describe people matter. If my kid is being “bossy,” I embrace it and reframe it in a more positive way. They can figure out the nuances when they’re older. I’d rather my five-year-old be “bossy” than be afraid to voice her opinion or take up space in this world.
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