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Top Talker: Words Matter: What Do You Call Your Girls?

Creative Commons/Ian Alexander Norman

Creative Commons/Ian Alexander Norman

Top Talker: Words Matter: What Do You Call Your Girls?

Words have power. Words are tools of thought. Words can make us think in new and different ways. Words can degrade and demean or uplift and enlighten. We all know this, and yet, many of us use words thoughtlessly and without regard for what they mean to the people listening to us.

Let’s talk about the word bossy, which is most often used to describe girls and usually not positively. When girls are described as bossy, it’s to temper their so-called aggressive behavior and to discourage them from speaking up.

Yesterday’s cover story in Parade magazine featured three women who want to ban the use of the word bossy: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state; and Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Parade magazine via Facebook

Parade magazine via Facebook

To be clear, I don’t think these women are trying to get the word bossy struck from the dictionary. They’re using hyperbole to change the conversation about girls and leadership. They’re trying to get parents, teachers, and other adults to think in a new direction and strike the word from their own vocabularies.

Related: Guest Posting: Daddy Doin’ Work: What I Want My Daughters To Know

The article points to a Girl Scouts study of 8- to-17-year-old girls, one-third of whom said they didn’t want to be leaders for fear of being disliked by their peers. “We are trying to get at the subtleties, the messages that keep girls from achieving,” says Rice.

Sheryl Sandberg makes an interesting point: “I tell parents, instead of saying, ‘My daughter is bossy,’ try, ‘My daughter has executive leadership skills.’ I’ve never heard anyone say that without laughing. Now say it for a boy: ‘My son has executive leadership skills.’ There’s no humor in that sentence, which reveals the difference in our expectations.”

Parents can help their daughters use their voices by encouraging them to speak up in class or letting her order her own meal at a restaurant. The article makes the point that being brave is a skill that is acquired over time and isn’t necessarily about dramatic moments. It makes sense that a girl who, little by little, is trained to speak up for herself would be more likely to have the courage to speak up for herself during big moments.

Teachers can be aware of group dynamics in the classroom. Girls tend to pick up the slack when peers aren’t pulling their weight. If they do work without fighting for the credit they deserve, they won’t push for it beyond the classroom, either.

Related: The GEM Debate: Do Nice Girls Finish Last?

Any adult can encourage girls to stop qualifying their opinions with an apology, as in, “I don’t know if I’m right, but…” It makes one sound uncertain and small. Also, encourage girls to do away with “upspeak,” making statements that sound like questions.

Of course, we adults—especially female adults—have to be practicing these things in our own lives. I certainly struggle with these issues sometimes, but the ban bossy campaign is making me think in new ways about the life I hope my daughters choose for themselves. It’s my duty to make sure that they have the tools they need to be courageous and assertive.

I think that when we change our language, we change our minds. I found the picture below on Facebook and I often look back at it when I think about how I refer to my children. I have two girls and two boys and, by birth order, the negative words I could use to describe them are dramatic, bossy, demanding, and clingy. What I difference it makes when I instead think of them as expressive, a natural leader, assertive, and affectionate. It makes me feel good about who they are and their potential when I use the positive reframe.

1 Positive Reframes

If you want to find out more about not using the word bossy, visit You can also join the campaign by posting “I will #banbossy” on Facebook and Twitter.

As a side note, though this post is about girls, boys can be wounded by the words parents and adults use, too. Check out this video about the three most damaging words you can say to a boy:


Related: Top Talker: What Do You Think Of “Rules For Dating My Son/Daughter”?

How do you feel about not calling girls bossy? Does this matter to you? Let’s have a conversation.


picmonkey alexis

Alexis Trass Walker lives in Gary, Indiana, with her husband and four children. She is managing editor of Good Enough Mother. Read more about Alexis on her blog or follow her on Twitter @LillieBelle5. You can email her at alexis [at] goodenoughmother [dot] com.


  1. Debra Wallace MS LMFT

    April 24, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    I love that the list of Positive Reframes I created has inspired you so much, just as a similar list from a “DARE to be you” program for youth did for me so long ago. Thanks for sharing the positive energy as the world, especially children, needs more light. Take wonderful care.

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