I have been confused by the Ban Bossy campaign launched recently by the Girls Scouts of the USA and LeanIn.Org. I am definitely impressed at how they ignited a dialogue that is addressing an outmoded societal pressure that can suppress leadership traits in girls at an early age.
Here is why I’m confused.
Yet when I looked at my reactions to the behaviors of young people around me, I realized that I do use the word “bossy” for both boys and girls when they are displaying what I would consider negative behavior characteristics: being self-centered, disrespectful, focused on winning more than including others and manipulating the outcome. Yes, in those situations, I even heard myself saying out loud, “Stop bossing your younger brother around.”
My first reaction to the campaign was that I shouldn’t correct those negative behaviors in girls anymore because I might damage their self esteem. But I should correct these behaviors in boys so they don’t grow up to be jerks. What? How is that fair? This conundrum was disturbing to me, so I looked deeper.
To me, bossiness stands for the self-serving behavior of someone (male or female) who doesn’t listen or respect the opinions of others. It never — not for boys or girls — has positive meaning for me. I don’t think that the campaign means that we should allow girls to display poor character or be rewarded for treating others badly. However, I also know that to label anyone at a young age is detrimental, causing them to inwardly see themselves negatively. I myself still carry the burden of worrying that I’m “irresponsible” and “thoughtless” to this day.
What I now understand is that the Ban Bossy campaign means to stop labeling positive leadership traits displayed by girls as bossy. We need to give them freedom and support (not just permission) to speak their mind, raise their hands and act out even if it’s an inconvenience or irritant.
I believe the same for young men and boys.
The Ban Bossy campaign does not mean to stop encouraging, supporting and developing young people toward greatness. Practically speaking, when I see a behavior in a young person that doesn’t reflect true leadership, I will be more specific in my reaction. I’ll try to say, “Listen to your younger brother. What is he saying? What is his opinion? How do you include his ideas?” If there isn’t the time or patience for that, maybe I’ll shorten it to, “Are you listening to and including everyone?”
I’ll stop lazily saying, “Stop being bossy.”