Kathleen Deveny: In Praise of Bossy Girls

My daughter is a little bossy. It's not surprising, really, because I'm a little bossy. (OK, some would say more than a little bossy.) But I've given up trying to change that aspect of myself, and I'm not too concerned about my daughter, either. It's not that I think my dear child's behavior is beyond reproach. I often worry that she can be unkind to other kids without even realizing it. I am trying hard to help her learn the art of empathy and teach her to be respectful of others. She could do better at all those things. So could I.

But I am going to stop fretting about bossiness for one simple reason: I have rarely heard anyone describe a little boy as bossy. Boys are assertive and confident, active and rambunctious. They may also be aggressive, wild or disruptive. But bossy is a label that parents, babysitters and teachers apply most often to the sugar-and-spice gender. Little girls hurl it at each other as an epithet. It may be partly because girls tend to be more verbal than boys, says Wendy Mogel, a child psychologist in L.A., and that comes off as bossy. She also believes that because of both nature and nurture, girls take more responsibility than boys for their social environment. Which leads to those "You sit there. No! Over there" discussions I sometimes hear my daughter having with her friends.

Perhaps. But labeling little girls as bossy is "incredibly sexist," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of "Raising Kids With Character." The urge to push other people around is deeply ingrained in human nature, but "the same presentation in a boy would be applauded as vivid and courageous and deserving of praise," she says.

Sure, some kids—and plenty of adults—go too far. Being physically aggressive or bullying is never acceptable. "Bossy, to me, is something that's going to turn people off," says Sue Wynne, a mother of four girls—ages 4, 8, 12 and 15—from Lincolnshire, Ill. "A good leader isn't bossy." But what is the difference, exactly, between being bossy and being assertive? We ask girls to walk a fine line between being strong and being likable. It's a line we typically allow boys to trample.

"Telling other people what to do is a leadership quality," says Jennifer Allyn, a managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. "There's another B word at work that we're all afraid of." And that's the essence of it. Our fear is that bossy girls grow up to be those abrasive women around our offices. (Oops, maybe that's me!) That kind of behavior might be tolerated from men in authority. But we demand that even the most powerful women play nice. Men are respected; women are liked. Allow your daughter to be bossy on the playground, and she may just grow up to be like Hillary Clinton. (Oh, my God! The first serious female presidential candidate! Get that kid into therapy!)

In the end, playground justice may determine the fate of bossy girls. What they are often trying to do is to persuade a group of people to go along with them. Persuading a group and being a leader are excellent qualities. Not considering the feelings of others or pushing your agenda to the exclusion of all others are awful qualities. They often don't work. But girls need to try out bossy behavior in order to learn which strategies are most effective, says Allyn, who has a 10-year-old daughter named Jordan.

Maybe I think bossy behavior is acceptable because I actually am a boss. Or maybe I was able to rise to a management position because I've always been bossy—something my mother confirms without hesitation. "Women have a tougher time getting ahead," says Mary Sirl, mother of Rae, 5, and Ella, 3. "So what's wrong with making your demands known? I want bossy to morph into powerful, assertive, ambitious and, of course, kind. Those are all the qualities that will help my girls get ahead."