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The Last Word on the Ban Bossy Campaign

03/18/2014 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2014

By now we have all heard much about Sheryl Sandberg's campaign to "Ban Bossy." Yet I have been thinking about her take on this subject since I initially heard mention of it in an interview for her book Lean In.

The first time I heard Sheryl Sandberg say, "I want every little girl who's told she's bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills," I was surprised by my emotional response. It wasn't that I thought it was revolutionary, nor that I assumed it was the latest politically correct attempt to boost feeble girls. Rather, her message forced me to examine the reality of how I was reacting to my own spirited daughter.

We have what we in our household euphemistically refer to as a "strong-willed" daughter. She routinely commands her older brother as though he were a minion in her domestic dictatorial state. At school, she is not afraid to speak her mind and she never stops talking. Mind you, it is difficult when you think you have all the answers.

The reality of today's classroom is that while some things have changed, the old assumptions about how children behave have not. Girls who are atypical -- those who do not sit quietly, listen and color inside the lines -- are looked upon differently. These boisterous, fidgety and outspoken girls are, at best, labeled strong-willed (like ours) and at worst, bossy (also like ours, sometimes). Of course, boys who act the same are simply put on Ritalin. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg should start a "Revoke Ritalin" campaign -- but that's another story.

When you have one of these girls yourself, the conversation around the word "bossy" is much more loaded. Raising such a daughter becomes a struggle with how to tame the aggressive, domineering side -- the bossy parts -- without squelching the underlying enthusiasm and passion.

Through my lens, filtered as it is with the presence of an actual bossypants under our roof, the current backlash and resentment toward the "Ban Bossy" campaign seems focused on the wrong targets.

Some claim this campaign suggests to girls that being bossy is good, equal to being a leader, and thus compels them to conform to the Alpha male stereotype. In fact, the campaign does the opposite -- it is saying let's change the vernacular. If we were calling girls Alpha females instead of bossy, we wouldn't be having this conversation, or this campaign.

Ban Bossy is not about the idea that girls are shamed for being bossy and boys are admired for it. The fact is we don't call boys bossy; we call them a number of other names. Yet none of the names we call boys carry the underlying implication that there is something to be ashamed of. In fact, in my playground experience, the common (and irritating) refrain is "boys will be boys." It is the subtle nuance between intentional behavior and innate character: that somehow a girl is morally responsible for being bossy, while a boy is simply exhibiting his god given attributes. Somehow the word bossy denotes much more than a condemnation of someone's actions.

I suspect that some of the people criticizing the ban bossy campaign don't have young girls, are men or are women too old to be called "bossy" anymore. I once had a boss who exemplified the truth that being bossy does not equate to superior leadership skills. While her management style left much to be desired, she would nonetheless be someone we would call bossy. Except that we don't. Rarely do we call women over the age of 12 bossy. We call them a different B word.

Of course this is the point "Ban Bossy" is trying to make. Let's change the assumption that girls, or women, who exhibit strength and determination deserve a pejorative characterization which implies deliberate malice as opposed to instinctive drive.

I am not the first to point out the bossiness of Sheryl Sandberg, Beyoncé and Condoleezza Rice commanding us to "Ban Bossy." But the fact that this call to action is being termed bossy, as opposed to assertive, emphatic or enthusiastic, loads irony upon irony.

Banning one word is not going to change the world for girls or women. Yet at a minimum, this campaign can make us aware that sometimes we do need to be careful how we characterize people, especially children -- even at times, our own. The language we use has implications. Sometimes words do speak louder than actions.