'Ban Bossy' misses the point

Sheryl Sandberg's 'Ban Bossy' campaign aims to empower girls by encouraging leadership without labels. One school psychologist points out that there are a lot of nuances to dealing with bossiness, more than just banning the label.

Mary Natali goes over letter sounds with her first grade class at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis on March 25.

I work as a school psychologist and parent educator. In the psychologist role, the issue of bossiness is a common and troublesome one. I do a lot of work in classroom discussions on how to “get along,” which often means not being bossy.

A recent lesson in a first grade class was on how to be a leader without being bossy. Ironically, I had just read a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Sheryl Sandberg discouraging the label of bossy. But this “ban bossy” trend misses some finer distinctions.

Domineering behavior is unattractive in most settings and I sometimes see the parents of little children who want to justify their child’s behavior by referring to Sandberg’s book. I guess that’s a good plan if you are grooming your child for the position of CEO and counting on employees for friends.

Boundaries, bossiness, and inclusion are probably the three main issues that occupy my work with kids. Not surprisingly, the bossiness issue plays into the other two.

Remarkably, the group of 6-year-olds got how a person can suggest, guide, and encourage in a respectful way to accomplish a goal. They understood how important it is to listen if you want to lead. I think that what Sheryl Sandberg might have suggested is to “lean in” with an ear ready to listen.

Another skill kids need is dealing with bossiness. In the same lesson, we practiced ways to “reject” and deal politely if someone is being overly domineering or bossy. In the lesson, we generated and rehearsed appropriate scripts, many preceded by the phrase: “I prefer.”

In a meeting with the parents of a very strong and directive little girl, I suggested that one refinement or skill to work on is when to use that behavior. Directive skills are perfect in some settings, and not so much in others. For very active boys and girls, I help parents see that we don’t want to reduce the horsepower, we just want to improve the transmission, steering, and brakes. The same goes for the tendency to be directive. Understanding when and how are important refinements of this trait.

In my parent trainings, I always remind participants that when it comes to a child’s temperament, “they come that way.” Our job is to help the trait become an asset rather than a liability. Understanding some of the finer distinctions increases the chances of that happening.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Susan DeMersseman blogs at Raising kids, gardens and awareness.

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