Is it bad to be bossy?
March 14, 2013 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm reading Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and very much enjoying it. She talks early on about being called "bossy" as a little kid and how that characteristic has followed her and how she views it as a negative characteristic. I really identified with that as I was also called "bossy" when I was a little girl for doing a lot of the same things that Sandberg was doing as a girl -- organizing games, making up plays, telling other kids what to do. And I'm wondering about the word "bossy" and whether I should avoid it with my own little girl.

I'm really tasking myself with making sure that my daughter is raised with an openness to her world, free of expectations of gender as much as possible and full of the notion that she can do all sorts of fascinating things. I've also noticed that she has been pretty darn bossy lately* and I believe I've used that word to characterize some of her behavior. And I while I take a sort of strange pride in it, as her mom and a formerly "bossy" child myself, I did also really recognize Sandberg's characterization of this as feeling negative. And, specifically, a trait that is more commonly applied to girls in a negative way.

What do you all think of the word "bossy?" If you are a boy, were you ever told that you were too bossy? If so, how did it make you feel? If you are a girl, same question. Is "bossy" a word I should avoid since it does have negative connotations? Is it wrong for a child to be bossy? I recall feeling sort of annoyed at this characterization of me as bossy and I remember kind of narrowing my eyes and thinking to myself, "You don't even get what I'm trying to do here!" Heh. And I carried on anyway. But, still, it did stuck with me.

There's this idea that boys are lauded for leadership qualities and girls are subtly (and not-so-subtly) punished for those same qualities. Is "bossy" a word I should avoid?

*for reference, my daughter is 2 and a few months and she has been enjoying commanding her Dad and I to do things: "Sing a song, mama! No, not that one, sing 'twinkle-twinkle.' No! Sing it quietly! Quietly! Now, do 'Wheels on the bus'!" It's really pretty humorous to us and I'm sure a common developmental stage -- is it a common stage for boys, too?
posted by amanda to Human Relations (42 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Ugh. Typo. "But, still, it did stuck with me" should read: it did stick with me. I blame this infernal, never-ending cold.
posted by amanda at 11:08 AM on March 14, 2013

Read about "tiger moms" and the destructive side consequences of that approach. You can be successful without ever being "bossy" (no such thing), professionally or in one's personal life.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:11 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personally, I don't like bossy children (or the word when it's used to merely describe assertiveness) and regardless of the gender I would prefer to be asked nicely. In the instances you give, I would just ask the child if she could say "Please" as well. There is a distinct difference between being rude and being assertive.
posted by teleri025 at 11:12 AM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

See, bossy is a word with negative connotations. I know several women leaders who are Fabulous and have great vision and lead decisively... but they're not bossy. The difference between leadership and bossyness is being willing to listen to other ideas and value them.

So if you could help your daughter continue to develop leadership qualities while still taking others' ideas and needs into account? Bossyness will only be something that sexist jerks attempt to pin on her (mostly unsuccessfully).
posted by ldthomps at 11:13 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've never heard a boy called "bossy." It's always read to me as a very gender-specific word for women who are asserting themselves too much, and has a negative connotation. I, too, was called bossy as a kid and remember feeling really frustrated and embarrassed by it.
posted by anotheraccount at 11:13 AM on March 14, 2013 [68 favorites]

Huh, I never really thought about this before. I remember occasionally getting "bossy" from my mom or kids/teachers at school, but not from my dad.

My dad would say things like, "you're being a really good leader," for positive stuff, and "you're being very demanding," for negative stuff.

And now that I'm thinking about it, I realize that my day to day life I try pretty hard to be a good leader without being overly demanding of other people's time or abilities. I can't even remember a time that I've considered myself bossy. (A bit controlling from time to time, perhaps...)
posted by phunniemee at 11:15 AM on March 14, 2013 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Generally speaking, we try not to tell the kids "Don't be X" when we can tell them "Don't do X."
posted by Etrigan at 11:16 AM on March 14, 2013 [32 favorites]

It seems like you can help your kid be more polite without pegging "bossy" (which is certainly an unpleasant, sexist word as far as I'm concerned) on them.
posted by supercoollady at 11:18 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

If being bossy means ordering people about and not having to say please, I think it's worthwhile to encourage your child toward better behavior.

My son has a 7-year-old friend (a boy) that my wife and I have frequently described as "bossy." He has has a habit of organizing games that require all his playmates to do exactly as he says, with tantrums or threats resulting if they don't cooperate.
posted by BurntHombre at 11:18 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure it matters specifically what words you use, as long as you foster the child's abilities to be assertive and confident, and discourage arrogance and disrespect for others' needs and feelings. The word "bossy" can have connotations all along the spectrum between these concepts; maybe focus on being conscious of which concepts you're invoking regardless of whether you use that exact word.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:19 AM on March 14, 2013

Bossy the Cow is my first thought, seriously.

I agree that it's mostly used of girls. And, it's labeling which is not helpful. Some aspects of that's called "bossy" are probably positive, some not so much. If a kid is doing something that is alienating other kids or is not fair to them, why not break it into components rather than slap a label on it?
posted by BibiRose at 11:20 AM on March 14, 2013

Best answer: I do think that being bossy is a thing, and it's not gender specific.

However, one thing that my wife and I have done with our girls that seems to be working quite well is that although there is a time and a place for pointing out inappropriate behavior (and we are pretty blunt about it at times), it is often much more effective to encourage a mimicking of the kind of behavior that we do prefer and providing positive reinforcement. So, for example, if one of our girls is using a whiny voice to ask for something, we will ask them to use their kind or polite or patient voice. We show them what that looks like in tone, and ask them to repeat it. Then, we give them verbal reinforcement and only then follow up on their request. At some point, after we have been doing this for awhile, we won't label the tone of voice. We'll simply say something like, "I can't understand you when you talk with that tone. Can you use your kind voice?" Additionally, if we see them complying on their own in the future or being socially appropriate in their interactions with other kids, we'll reinforce that as well: "Wow, I really like how you talked so nicely to that boy, even though I know it was probably difficult." So, not only do they not get what they want from the wrong approach, but they get an instant reward from doing the right thing. We don't budget until they comply, but it's framed against the hope of a future reward. If they don't get the reward, it falls firmly in their lap. In this way, I think, the positives become the running narrative in their minds much, much more than the negative labels.

This has been working really well. And we aren't opposed to giving physical rewards for compliance, either. All more positive reinforcement that eventually becomes habit.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:23 AM on March 14, 2013 [13 favorites]

Ask Moxie addressed this earlier this week. Very interesting.
posted by Leezie at 11:29 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was a bossy kid, but I'm a very effective adult. In my family, being "bossy" wasn't a negative trait. Every time a teacher or authority figure would use that word about me, my father was very quick to tell them that I wasn't rude or mean, but I was being a leader (he used different language, but that's the gist.) He always encouraged me to voice my opinions and ideas. In our house, Lucy was the heroine of Peanuts.
I'm very direct, and I don't use weasel words. In my career, this is a plus, but I've never worked in any corporate environment nor in a bureaucracy. I would imagine that I would be less effective in those worlds.
My daughter doesn't have my extroversion or temperament, but I know that in group projects, she's very focused on the tasks and on her own views, and several of her college professors have praised her for her effective leadership.

But a two year old isn't being "bossy". She's just saying what she wants. As long as you remind her about "please and thank you" and taking no for an answer, I think she'll be fine. It's okay to say what you want.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:32 AM on March 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

The difference between bossiness and assertiveness is that the bossy person has no awareness of the other person or people as people. Others' wants and needs simply don't exist, so why bother accounting for them? It's the objectification of others. This is not the same as being assertive, which is saying what you want and standing up for yourself. Bossiness is running other people over. (Granted, the line between "standing up for yourself" and "running people over" isn't as clear and clean as we'd like, but that's a topic for another day, right?) It's a pity that the word "bossy" has a sexist taint, because it's a useful distinction, like having different words for pride and arrogance.

From anecdotal evidence and my understanding of child development, bossiness is very common around age two, because the little ones don't yet grasp the idea that other people are independent actors. It can pass. As other parents here have suggested, you can get past it by modelling the behavior you want to see, praising good behavior, correcting bad behavior, and speaking only about a kid's actions rather than ascribing basic qualities to the kid. "You're acting rudely" is very different to a kid from "you're rude."

A coworker of mine told me that when he was about two, his father bought him a Fidel Castro costume, because the boy was such a little dictator. It's a common problem.

I wonder if the costume had a tiny beard? I hope it did.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 11:55 AM on March 14, 2013 [11 favorites]

"Bossy" is too vague. I was told I was bossy as a kid, but it communicated zero information to me about a) what, if anything, I was doing wrong, and b) what I should do instead.

Try substituting a different word or phrase that implies what you would like her to add or substitute. Is she being inconsiderate of feelings or other peoples' time or desires? Say, "You're being inconsiderate", or even "rude" -- both of these things are almost always negative, and they have clear opposites: considerate, polite. Or just [ask her] tell her to request rather than demand.

What's really the opposite of bossy? Subservient? Passive?
posted by amtho at 11:57 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

The word "bossy" is absolutely negative and gender specific. Boys might be told they are being bullies or smart-alecks or pushy, overbearing little brats, but I've never heard someone tell a boy to stop being so bossy- and it is not because boys categorically don't engage in some unique type of behavior. You can tell a man "you're not my boss" but it's generally understood that it would be okay and good for him to be somebody's boss. For a long time it was not socially acceptable for women to be in charge. I hope someday this will be as obvious as other embarrassing and outdated words like "uppity".
posted by steinwald at 12:09 PM on March 14, 2013 [15 favorites]

The only time I call my kid "bossy" is when she attempts to reverse the parent-child relationship, angrily telling me I'd better do this or that or I'm going to be in trouble, etc. Beyond that, allowing some agency is good, and let the kids sort out their social dynamics for themselves; takes all kinds (leaders, followers, bumblers), and usually the consequences of excessive choices are self-evident over time.
posted by acm at 12:10 PM on March 14, 2013

Bossy was never used as a gendered term amongst my parents' friends. It applied to both boys and girls, and was usually meant to refer to someone who attempts to exert authority that they have not earned. I (male) was told not to be bossy more than once.

And yeah, being bossy is one of the least endearing traits that a child can exhibit, to me. The word is negative, and it should be negative. Being bossy is not at all the same thing as demonstrating leadership. A bossy child does not value consensus or the input of others, and expects deference immediately for no particularly good reason.

It is absolutely virtuous to teach children (regardless of gender) the qualities of leadership, while still explaining to them the pitfalls of bossiness.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:12 PM on March 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

What do you all think of the word "bossy?" If you are a boy, were you ever told that you were too bossy?

We tell my son he's being "bossy" all the time (he's 6 1/2) and work with him on other strategies to be a leader -- including saying please and thank you, and practicing actively listening to and incorporating other's ideas and feedback.

There is a huge difference between being an assertive leader and being "bossy". Bossy, to me, implies a very real disregard for other's feelings, ideas, and imput. If he's going to be the kid who organizes the other kids (which my son is, to some extent), I want him to be able to do it because his ideas are better or because he works to make everyone feel included, not because for the other kids it's too scary (or too much work) to say no.

Frankly, boy or girl, I don't want to raise a kid that is bossy, even if it means s/he'll never be in the 1%. It is more important to me that my child is raised to respect and celebrate others ideas. And my husband agrees. These are the values we find most important.
posted by anastasiav at 12:29 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent, but I spend a large amount of time with kids, and here's my take:

I want to encourage kids -- especially girls -- to be the boss [of things that it's appropriate for them to be the boss of], but not to be bossy. To me, bossy suggests a kind of rudeness that I think can actually be detrimental to the actual wielding of power. My best bosses, after all, get me to do what they want through other means than snapping their fingers and demanding that I do things just so.

So I encourage kids to know what they want and to express it, including forcefully, but I discourage them from being jerky about it.
posted by spindrifter at 12:33 PM on March 14, 2013

There are better ways to lead than being "bossy", study chapter 17 of the Dao De Jing, tl;dr: the best leaders are invisible.
posted by Tom-B at 12:35 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bossy is what it's socially acceptable to call assertive little girls before they're old enough that you can call them bitches. I hate that it's thought of as negative - we'd never assign that label to boys. There's a kind of "bossy-ness" that is socially unacceptable but let's name it what it is. When you use a word that has as its root the word "boss" and assign something negative to it and use it mostly with one gender over another I think it matters. I think it means that little girls grow up thinking that being "a boss" is bad because we don't go far enough to say there's a difference between being "a boss" and being "bossy". Until we can teach that difference effectively, bossy little girls are GREAT.
posted by marylynn at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2013 [24 favorites]

There is so much pressure to be a "nice girl," and what that often means is that for women, they should shut up and not say anything beyond what is expected of them.

There's a reason that studies show that young girls are fearless. Then they grow up to be insecure teenagers and women.

It's a fine line to walk between assertiveness and bossiness, but women are mostly taught to be afraid of being seen as "bossy" and assertive, and often that turns into passive-aggressiveness and sublimating their own needs.

I really think that it is worth thinking through what constitutes "bossy" behavior first. Being a jerk is one thing, but it seems that anything can be considered bossy. I mean, as an adult, I was once called "bossy" by a stranger who overheard me encouraging my friend to try an accessory on when she was clearly interested in it. It was clearly meant as an attack, and that kind of thing does stick with me.
posted by so much modern time at 12:43 PM on March 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

I had friends who I described as "bossy" and I was very unhappy with them. They made all the decisions and were openly contemptuous of me.

A good leader is respectful of their followers and doesn't rely on argumentum ad baculum nor make the followers miserable. I've never been tempted to call a good leader "bossy". I've never even been tempted to call a bad leader "bossy" as long as their bad qualities didn't include throwing their weight around.

This page on Alpha Behaviour more clearly delineates the characteristics of a good leader:
- looks out for the group
- is trustworthy
- communicates
- allows others their place

and these are definitely qualities to aspire to.
posted by tel3path at 12:57 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do agree that a woman who speaks up and attempts to guide a group is at a higher disadvantage than a man attempting to take that role. There's some sexist resistance to it, which can lead to the unfair characterizations of the woman as being bossy. However, I think the negative connotations of "bossy" stem from the fact that a bossy person tends to steamroll other people's needs and desires in service of their own vision for how things should go. Even as a little kid I was able to distinguish between someone being bossy and someone being a good leader. Bossy people were unobservant, insensitive people who refused to let other people have input. In contrast, good leaders took into account the needs and desires of the group. It had less to do with gender and more to do with resentment that the person everyone was obeying was not being fair.

I think it's awesome that your girl is assertive and decisive. I think you can just leave the word bossy out of the conversation and work on developing her leadership, negotiating, and listening skills with her. Many people prefer to follow rather than lead, but that doesn't mean that the leader is right all the time or what they want is the best for everyone.
posted by rhythm and booze at 1:15 PM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am a girl. I was told constantly that I was bossy. I never really felt proud or ashamed of it; I just accepted it as a part of my personality. I have blue eyes, I like kittens, and I am the bossiest little girl on the block. I am the oldest sibling, so of course I was bossy. Being told I was bossy never deterred me from being bossy. My thoughts were more along the lines of, "Stating the obvious much?"

I'm still bossy. Only now that I'm grownup it's couched in nicer terms, like "strong leadership" or "excellent organizational skills". People like me because I am bossy. People like people with a plan and the will to see it through, especially the aimless, indecisive people who populate my life. When I was dealing with depression, my passivity was one of the things that disturbed my friends the most.

Of course, a lot of people aren't crazy about my bossy-ness, but it's mostly other bossy people that don't like it. And as Tina Fey writes in "Bossypants", quoting Amy Poehler, "I don't care if you fucking like it."
posted by peacrow at 1:39 PM on March 14, 2013 [10 favorites]

I don't agree that 'bossy' means the same thing as a good leader. If I were to describe someone as 'bossy,' it would mean that they had very specific ideas about how things should be done, habitually forced those ideas on their peers, and wasn't open to negotiation.

I have heard boys referred to as "bossy"-- in fact I'm not sure I would say I have noticed any kid of a gender divide on that word-- maybe it's a generational shift?

I don't see any reason to use that word with your child since some of the connotations are negative. I think you can help her develop that assertiveness and the good leadership qualities as well as cultivating humility and openness to other's ideas at the same time.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:05 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

My little brother used to be very bossy at around the same age you're describing. And was definitely referred to as such. He grew up to be a pretty laid back guy though.

Agree with the posters who're talking about the fine line between bossiness and assertiveness. Of course, 2 year olds can't grasp that distinction, and that's where the parents come in.
posted by Broseph at 2:07 PM on March 14, 2013

I've never heard of this word being gender-specific, and I also believe it's just a natural part of childhood development. As kids get older and start to try to manipulate their surroundings, they are naturally going to go overboard sometimes. I've probably said to my kids at times when they were younger, "OK now you're getting too bossy." And they knew what I meant. (Not that they listened : ) Why avoid using a perfectly valid word that aids in communication? You might be over thinking this whole thing.
posted by see_change at 2:32 PM on March 14, 2013

I too believe that use of "bossy" is mostly gendered. (Disclosure: I was called bossy a lot as a kid.)

I have the impression bossy is mostly used when the behaviour is felt to be surprising or unwarranted. I have never heard an adult male described as bossy: only children and women. (And maybe gay men, now that I think about it.) And I have definitely seen men behave in the ways that are being described in this thread as constituting bossyness.

So it seems to me that bossy has two characteristics: it's leadership behaviour that's i) unpleasant or unwanted and ii) felt to have an aspect of presumption: it's being engaged in by someone not expected to be behaving like a leader, because of their gender or age. So if I were you, I'd aim to correct my kid on the unpleasant aspects of her behaviour, but I would avoid using the word bossy to describe it because I wouldn't want her to wrongly infer that leadership behaviour among girls is inherently bad. FWIW that's the message I took from being called bossy as a kid: that I should shut up, listen more, be more compliant and deferential, including to my peers. And as others have noted, girls get that message plenty: they really don't need any more of it.
posted by Susan PG at 2:42 PM on March 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

Just because no one else has answered this one specifically

is it a common stage for boys, too?

Hoo boy yes. My son is the same age as your daughter and we're dealing with this now too. They're not bossy, they're just 2. We just remind him to say please.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:43 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

What do you all think of the word "bossy?"

I think this is a very negative word. I would reserve this word for a person I really don't like. Even my boss is not bossy with me.

If you are a boy, were you ever told that you were too bossy? If so, how did it make you feel? If you are a girl, same question.

I don't remember ever being told this, but if someone called me bossy, I would take that to mean that they want me to back off.

Is "bossy" a word I should avoid since it does have negative connotations?

I would not call any child this because I think it's kind of shaming and doesn't serve a purpose that I can see. It seems like you can actually remember being confused by people calling you bossy as a child. It made you feel misunderstood, and did not alter your behavior. So what's the point? Why not just explain exactly what they did that you didn't like? (Although you seem to not mind the example behavior.)

Is it wrong for a child to be bossy?

I would definitely give a two-year-old leeway. My son just turned two, and he acts a lot like your daughter. "Get up, mommy! Let's dance!" I have never thought of him as bossy, and would never call him that. I think of him as demanding, but wouldn't call him that within his earshot, either. I think these labels would just be confusing at his age. He's only two! He can't even reliably pull down his pants!

Some people are suggesting please and thank you. In my opinion, nothing would be qualitatively different if my son appended a "please" to the end of his demands. Please doesn't make everything better.
posted by pizzazz at 2:46 PM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another vote for "bossy" is not a gendered word. (I am female). I use this word to describe males and females all the time. The reason it has a negative connotation is because bossiness is synonymous with rudeness. As others state, the best leaders are invisible, and the best way to lead is not to tell others what to do.
posted by Lobster Garden at 3:13 PM on March 14, 2013

I am a female consultant in a specific STEM field that supersedes geography: My field is somewhat universal. There are definite times when I could be considered to be 'bossy'. Truthfully, I am hired to ensure that companies are compliant with current regulations. I try my best to be diplomatic, but I'm certain that some people consider me to be 'bossy'. I just make sure that places are compliant (FDA, JP, EP, &c.).
posted by kamikazegopher at 4:10 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the others here who've said that "bossy" isn't necessarily gendered. I do think it's age-specific, though; I've rarely heard it applied to anyone older than 12 or so. I think it can apply to boys. To me, it means someone telling others what to do in a way that disempowers them somehow—that makes them feel coerced rather than encouraged. Leadership is not the same thing as bossiness.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:46 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I prefer the term "Demandatron". As far as I know there's no gender inherent and it'll often get my daughter to laugh and stop being one. (Also, it's fun to think of her as a little robot demanding things.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:08 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think while being bossy is not *necessarily* gender specific, it's far more often applied to girls.

As a kid who was labelled bossy and who now gets to boss people around for money, I have pretty distinct memories of being told I WAS bossy and also of being kind of defiant about it. As in, there is nothing wrong with me, if being bossy is part of my BEING. I kind of wonder how I would have turned out if I had been told that my behavior, instead of mySELF, was bossy.

I think I would have preferred to have been told, "Please stop acting in a bossy way," rather than, "Stop being bossy." On some level I think it was like saying, "Stop being a GIRL."
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:15 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I never knew bossy was considered gendered, and we have certainly told our son to "stop bossing us around" when needed. Which is most days because he still labors under the delusion that we are his servants. He also bosses other kids if we don't interfere. I like that he has opinions, but getting him to consider those of others is a constant struggle.
posted by emjaybee at 8:23 PM on March 14, 2013

My experience of the word "bossy" is definitely gendered, and I associate very negative feelings with it. I would discourage anyone from referring to a girl with that word. Ugh. I didn't realize just how many bad feelings that word stirred up until I read this question!
posted by Bergamot at 8:30 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

i definitely think bossy has negative connotations. bossy = controlling & demanding imo. definitely not something to aspire to. it is quite different from being a leader. a leader leads through motivation and inspiration not by being controlling or bossy. a leader's passion is contagious.

i do think bossy is applied more to girls than boys because strong women are not always looked kindly upon but one first has tease out whether said woman is bossy or a leader.
posted by wildflower at 11:42 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Bergamot and anotheraccount. I was called bossy as a 'little girl', but my older brother, who in my eyes was much worse, never got called that. Was it because he was older, or because he was male? I'm not sure, but being called bossy along with other circumstances in my life left me with a lifelong distaste around asking for things and a near-inability to understand how to make demands, reasonable or unreasonable, which I continue to struggle with.

Like Medieval Maven said just above, I have pretty distinct memories of being told I WAS bossy and also of being kind of defiant about it. As in, there is nothing wrong with me, if being bossy is part of my BEING.

I too considered being "bossy" to be part of me and would've given a hearty "eff you" to the people who were telling me I was bossy if I'd known that kind of language at that age! I feel pretty sure that if I had been told "you're acting demanding" or "your behavior right now is bossy" as opposed to you are bossy that I wouldn't have reacted that way and might've been much more open to changing it.
posted by saveyoursanity at 12:31 PM on March 15, 2013

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