Daughters in charge
I ran into a friend the other day with her 6-year-old, who had just celebrated her birthday with a long-awaited party. I asked how it went.
“It was fun,” the 6-year-old said, “but we didn’t get to do everything on the schedule.”
Flashback to my daughter’s sixth birthday party.
Problem was, the troops weren’t cooperating. We had birthday mutiny.
For some reason, the other 6-year-olds didn’t really want to be told what to do by my 6-year-old. They pretty much wanted to run around the yard and giggle and scream.
As my daughter saw her birthday plans going up in smoke, I gently suggested that maybe I should be in charge of the games and she should just play with her friends. The orders would be more palatable coming from a grown-up.
It’s a common trait among 6-year-olds. They’re the cutest things ever, but they want to be in charge of everything. It must be some developmental stage.
Maybe in the caveperson era the 6-year-olds were sent out to lead a hunt for the first time. (I have a similar evolutionary theory for 3-year-olds: The reason they only like three foods and HEAVEN FORBID won’t try anything new is that they were left to forage for their own food at that age, and it was safer to just avoid anything they didn’t recognize.)
Anyway, I had noticed this trait in my daughter from an early age. I distinctly remember trying to think of a way to tell her toddler self not to be bossy, without using those exact words — mostly because I didn’t want her to throw them back at me later.
She is not an aggressive personality. We had to practically force her to try to take the ball away from other players in basketball. The message is a bit confusing: Be a good sport — but take her down!
She does, however, love to direct, teach and choreograph. When her friends come over she’s always organizing a play or ballet or concert for the parents.
She’s fairly easygoing, and for the most part it goes well, but sometimes they chafe under her “direction.”
My friend’s 6-year-old has the same quality: She recently wrote a note to her teacher asking when she could be the student teacher for the class.
Like many moms, we worry that they will drive their friends crazy.
How do we not snuff out that ingenuity, that sense of purpose and confidence, but still curb the bossy side of the equation?
This has always been a big topic, especially since Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg published her book last spring, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” In it she argued that the same traits in women and men (and girls and boys) are interpreted very differently depending on gender.
“I want every little girl who someone says ‘they’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills,’” she wrote, a quote that’s since shown up on countless Facebook posts.
Her book followed a 2010 TED talk where she lamented that women too often were “leaning back.” In public addresses, she urged young professionals and students to “lean in” instead, a phrase that took on a life of its own on social media. Sandberg also formed the Lean In organization to promote her message.
Obviously she struck a chord. My friends and I have noticed that we don’t worry as much about this trait in our boys. I’ve spent more time encouraging my son to speak up or take the lead, as he is a very different person.
But Sandberg has also drawn critics, who point out that bossiness is not the same thing as leadership. True leadership is more about listening, vision, responsibility and, often, letting others take the credit.
Lots of adults haven’t mastered this, so what do we want from our kids? They have a lot on their plate these days: be assertive but don’t bully, be kind but steal that ball, be a leader but don’t be bossy!
As my daughter approaches middle school, this discussion will become even more important. If anything, she will need to be more resilient.
Maybe we stress about this too much. Our children pick up a lot by watching us. The best we can do is teach them not to accept limits or stereotypes, or let others define who they are, and give them lots of options.
A good message for boys and girls, even if they each put a different spin on it.
Recently another friend’s daughter played one of her best friends in soccer, and they worried about a possible confrontation.
But after a competitive game, the friend came over and said, with great admiration, “You’re really aggressive!”
“So are you!” the other exclaimed happily.
They’re figuring it out.
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave your comment below or contact her at (217) at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Top: Pinatas hang throughout Dallas & Co. in Champaign. News-Gazette file photo.
Bottom: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg says girls who are labeled ‘bossy’ should instead be lauded for their leadership skills. Andy Wong/AP