Banning Bossy: It’s not about the word, it’s about the conversation

Cathy Adams Books, Personal Reflection, self-aware parenting 2 Comments

People create things based on their own experience. And in Sheryl Sandburg’s experience, “bossy” made her feel wrong or maybe uncomfortable.

Obviously it didn’t hold her back, but when people used it with her, the energy must have felt negative or at the very least unbalanced when compared to boys.

I have noticed that there are many negative articles and comments about Sheryl Sandburg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. Discourse is important, but I also feel like bigger points are being missed.

The intention of this campaign is to bring awareness to what our girls experience, to remind us of our words and to look at our possible discomfort when it comes to girls with a powerful voice.

I have worked with young girls for the majority of my professional career as a teacher and therapist.  Right now I spend most of my professional time talking with 5th grade girls about self awareness and self worth.  I am also the mother of 3 girls, 10, 9, and 6.

I see how this word gets used and I see how it affects the girls I work with.  Many of the girls I talk to do not want to be perceived as “bossy” or “know-it-alls” so they don’t raise their hand in class, and they pretend they don’t know answers when they actually do.

Girls admit to me that they dumb themselves down for boys, or even other girls, so others won’t think they are trying to be “better”.

I see how girls shift from wanting to be leaders to wanting to blend in to protect themselves from being lonely or hurt.

I have talked with countless parents for over 15 years about how they want their daughters to be “nicer” or “sweeter”, while they simultaneously allow their boys to take charge or speak their mind.

I don’t think these things are happening because anybody is trying to be harmful or cruel, and I don’t think I have ever talked with a parent who has intentionally wanted to harm or hold back their daughter.

They are just worried about societal expectations for a girl, mostly because they remember their own experiences. They say they want their daughter to be a leader or be authentic, but deep down they want their daughter to fit in, they want everybody to like her.

Without knowing we often base our daily decisions on old beliefs, outdated ways of thinking. We tell our girls they can be whatever they want while simultaneously, and often subconsciously, reminding them to be a little quieter, a little gentler, a little more “put together”, and a little less bossy.

Sometimes these things feel right in certain situations, but when they are said consistently over many years, they add up and girls begin to believe that they need to dim themselves – be a little less, blend a little more, pretend that everything is OK, and let others take the lead.

“Banning” the word bossy isn’t the only answer nor is it going to change everything, but it’s a small step, it’s a conversation-starter.

I do my best to be conscious of the way I talk to my daughters, and many times I have found myself directing them toward an outcome that will make everyone else happy.  While this isn’t always a bad thing, it does need to be balanced with reminders to be bold, risk-taking, and courageous.

On a daily basis I realize how deeply old belief systems are imbedded in me.  I recognize that it often feels easier or more socially acceptable to take a step back rather than step forward with confidence and determination.

The banning bossy discussion is not just for young girls, it’s for us, too.  

This campaign isn’t perfect and it doesn’t apply to everybody because nothing does.  But it’s a start, and it’s obviously being furiously debated.

It gets us talking about reminding girls to be authentically themselves, to shine as bright as possible, to be leaders and innovators.

They will need help and support along the way.  Of course they shouldn’t get a pass when they treat people unkindly, and of course they should learn to listen when others have an opinion.

As parents we can guide them toward this kind of true leadership.  We can remind them to use their voice but also be excellent listeners. We can remind them to be brave and say what they feel while respecting the ideas of others.

And that’s what this campaign is – it’s one person’s idea.  It’s her experience, it’s her voice. It’s not perfect, and it may not resonate with everyone, but it’s a valuable discussion, it’s a step toward deeper awareness.

It may be a necessary step toward teaching girls that their unique voice and out-of-the-box ideas are their greatest strength, and not a weakness that they need to overcome.

If you want to read more about similar issues, I highly recommend the following books:

The Curse of the Good Girl and Odd Girl Out – by Rachel Simmons

Reviving Opehlia – by Mary Pipher

Read about Be U, Inc. here and Be U Girls Club here.

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