Bossy Boots! Helping children express themselves without being labelled…

“She’s so bossy!”

Ouch. It’s a word that has a nasty sting. “Bossy” has an offensive connotation and isn’t a particularly nice label to wear. Technically, it means a fondness for giving people orders; being domineering. If a child is genuinely ‘bossy’ their behaviour may need to be addressed.

But what if the child is simply ‘assertive’? The issue gets decidedly more interesting when the word is given the ‘gender swap’ test, and we observe how we would judge the behaviour if it were a boy, rather than a girl. If a little boy was behaving in a particular way, would he be called bossy, or just ‘strong-willed’ or ‘opinionated’? Or would he be commended for the behaviour, and be labelled as showing “good leadership qualities”?

Ban bossy
In 2014, a clever feminist campaign for young women was released by Google’s Sheryl Sandberg to ban the word “bossy” and instead focus on ambition and leadership. The campaign was championed by several superstars such as Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner and Michelle Obama.

Put simply, the message was this:

Dealing with bossy child attitudes - Sage Institute of Child Care“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’. When a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’. Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”

Labels like bossy, pushy and stubborn are negative words that can be given to children who do speak up and have opinions. Using these labels can squash a child’s creativity and confidence and make them feel judged by others. But where is the line between bossy and assertive and how do we encourage our young people to express themselves appropriately and confidently when these labels exist?

The problem with “bossy”
Now, we all want our classrooms to be filled with assertive and confident little girls and boys, but there is clearly an important line that shouldn’t be crossed. We want any child to assert their opinions, participate with confidence and be keen to question things.

What we want to avoid is a child who is rude and disrespectful to others. So where and how do you draw the line? If we look at the definition again, ‘bossy’ means being “fond of giving people orders; domineering”. On the other hand, ‘assertive’ is defined as “having or showing a competent and forceful personality.”

The difference has a lot to do with our attitude towards others and manners.

There is a huge difference between a child asking a playmate to help put all the books away, and demanding outright that the friend puts all the books away immediately. Similarly, overt instructions, devoid of manners, such as “Come here now” “Go away!” or “You can’t play”, are dismissive, antisocial and are just plain bad mannered. There is no interaction, opportunity for negotiation or any attempt at team play. This sort of behaviour shows more of a talent for dictatorship than assertiveness!

Manners and socialisation
Remembering good manners helps to keep a lot of these problems at bay. Prefacing a request with a ‘please’ can change a domineering command to a polite and totally reasonable request. Saying ‘thank you’ acknowledges your appreciation of people obliging your requests. Learning these social graces is very important to developing leadership skills. Our best leaders are always those who are inclusive and polite, but firm in their views.

Bossiness can also be a result of a lack of socialisation. The more a child plays with others, the more they understand how others should be treated in order to get along. Socialisation also helps children to understand the intricacies of ‘tone of voice’, body language and eye contact. Play with other children also exposes a child to a range of personality types and situations where sometimes they might lead the group, and other times just follow along with activities.

If a child is showing signs of overly domineering behaviour, it’s important to make sure that a child isn’t simply mimicking another rude child, bossy carer or family member. Have a look at yourself and those around you and see if someone in the child’s world could be contributing to this behaviour.

Keeping confidence up
If a child is showing signs of behaviour that need addressing, be tactful. Shaming a child in public for her behaviour will only lead to embarrassment and a developing lack of confidence. Gently point out the inappropriate behaviour and redirect the child towards a new way of expression that is more polite and considerate but still gets their message across.

Discussing bossy behavior with your child - Sage Aged CareGirls and boys should be encouraged to speak their minds, ask questions and take small risks in a group by putting their hands up and not being afraid to get it wrong. If we encourage our children to be confident and express themselves with persistence, assertiveness and good manners they will be praised and admired, rather than being labelled a plain old Bossy Boots.

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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