When Sheryl Sandberg told me she was launching a project to stop us all from calling little girls bossy, my immediate reaction was, “But what if my daughter *is* bossy?!?!?”
My partner and I have a five-year-old daughter, Willa. A few weeks ago, we got a call from the parents of Willa’s best friend. During kindergarten recess on a particularly cold day at the playground, apparently Willa told her friend to put her tongue on a metal pole. When the friend’s tongue became stuck, my daughter (who I guess forgot the rest of the scene in the movie about running for help) pulled her friend and her friend’s tongue off the pole. I’m told there was a lot of blood.
Once when Willa was three, a few months after Christmas, she was eating a piece of candy cane. “Mom,” she asked, “When I’m a grown-up, can I eat a whole candy cane?”
“Honey,” I said, “When you’re a grown up you can have as many candy canes as you want.”
“Sure, when you’re a grown up you can do whatever you want.”
“Really?” she asked, and then paused for a second. “When I’m a grown up can I hit people?”
We often joke that Willa was less a name, and more foreshadowing. We also joke that when she grows up she’ll probably be a dictator.
Teachers don’t always use the word bossy but they say things like Willa isn’t good at doing what other kids want to do and will grab other kids to try and drag them toward whatever she wants to play. It’s one thing for me to think my kid is challenging, but hearing it from someone else instinctively pisses me off. Early on when Willa was flagged as a “behavior” problem in pre-kindergarten, I would insist to my partner and our friends, “If she were a boy, no one would be complaining about her behavior.” Maybe, our friends with kids would suggest, squinting their eyes thoughtfully. Of course, their kids had had playdates with Willa….
Willa is a wonderfully smart and funny and perceptive and engaging little kid. When she hears a word in adult conversation that she doesn’t understand, she picks up on it, asks what the word means and then will try to use it in a sentence. She recently started working on a letter to President Obama about the crisis in Syria—her penmanship struggling to keep up with her ideas—because she wanted to know what the President can do to keep everyone in Syria safe and help there be less killing in the world. She’ll spend an hour with a ukulele in her lap making up songs with elaborate characters and odd plot lines.
But mostly, Willa is preoccupied with her stuffed animals and dolls and playing make-believe—where she is always the big sister or the mom. And she is focused on her so-far-unsuccessful quest to get a puppy from her mothers or Santa Claus or anyone who will listen. When you meet Willa, you immediately know she’s a powerful little person with a determination to exert her will on the world. And she is the daughter of two proud, accomplished women who have succeeded in life by asserting our wills on the world. Certainly no one who knows me would accuse me of being a shrinking violet. And I get a lot of “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” remarks about my daughter.
It’s weird the things you think about and try and rationalize when you’re a parent. “If this were a hunter-gatherer society, she would be an invaluable five-year-old. She’d be organizing the other five-year-olds to gather extra grain and …” “Willa only seems bossy because we have an over-medicated, overly submissive, homogenous culture that privileges compliance over creativity and…” And… and yet watching my daughter be ostracized because she’s overbearing not only shatters all my illusions, it breaks my heart. Yes, she’s a wonderfully forceful little kid with great leadership qualities. Then again, if she doesn’t learn how to listen and take the needs of others’ into account, she’ll never be able to use those qualities to be a great leader.
Since Sheryl told me not to, I’ve stopped using the word bossy. I now see how loaded “bossy” is with gender biases and expectations. But that doesn’t mean I don’t catch myself about to say it and searching for an alternative. Is a synonym any better? My daughter is assertive. My daughter is precocious. My daughter is amazing. I want to keep all of the good parts of whatever-she-is-that-I’m-not-calling-bossy. I want her to grow up to feel confident and powerful about herself and insistent about the world around her. And in fact, I don’t worry about her when she’s 30. I just hope we can help her develop the other qualities she needs to get there.