children, education, mindful parenting, parenting tips

Do Our Words Limit Our Daughters?

My girls are 3 and 7. They argue. I’m quite sure that’s normal, as I have a sister who is four years younger than I am and we used to argue, too. (Sometimes we still do.) 


But the criticism my 7 year-old likes to assert on her little sister is that she’s being “bossy” and that this is the problem. But is it really a problem?


I want my girls to be bossy. I want my daughters to know how to fight for their right to speak or play or participate. I want them to say, “Thank you,” with their heads held high when they receive a compliment and not just shrug their shoulders and give the credit to someone else.


We want our daughters be confident, right? So why can’t they be bossy?


Bossy is a very negative word in our society and one that we really only use for little girls. But what if we apply that word to an adult female? We usually wouldn’t because our perception of this trait changes as we get older.

“I want every little girl who is told she is bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.” — Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

According to Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and COO of Facebook, when we put that negative connotation on our girls, we are missing an opportunity to build up skills that can help them succeed. 


In a recent interview for Glamour, Sandberg further clarifies this point: “I want that little girl not to be discouraged, at age six, from leading, but encouraged. And if I can play a role in doing that, that’s awesome.”


The problem with bossy is sometimes “rude” accompanies it. So the balance we must find as parents is to make sure our child who is asserting herself isn’t being disrespectful by doing so. I don’t want to discourage my daughter’s willingness to speak up or take charge, but rather encourage her to respect her sister, her friends, and her peers. 


It may be easy to see this point when discussing a negative word such as bossy, but what about a word like smart? Isn’t it a good thing to tell our children, especially our girls, that they are smart? We do this to encourage them so that they succeed in school and therefore in life, right?


It’s very possible we got that part wrong. 


In his book NurtureShock, Po Bronson shares the results of a study done with fifth graders that showed the children who were told they were “smart” achieved less than those who weren’t praised in that way. Especially the girls. 


The “smart” girls seemed to believe that when something didn’t come easy to them, they were just not good at it — as if it was predetermined: Either they were good at it or they weren’t. The study showed that when children were instead praised for the work they put into a test, a project, or a subject in school they performed better. Once they knew they could control the outcome by working harder, their frustrations fell away and their confidence rose. 


Sometimes we settle for words without really meaning to. Most of us use the word “pretty” in a very well-meaning way. I love the story Glennon shared on Momastery about her daughter asking if she was “pretty” and the discussion that followed about how beautiful trumps pretty. Why? Because being full of beauty is about so much more than how you look. 

We are all trying to make sense of our world. Words provide us with labels to organize these thoughts. But I have a very hard time with labels as they can trap us and trick us into thinking something is true when it is not. For example, my oldest daughter is very sensitive and often acts in a shy way when introduced to new people or an new environment, yet if I hear her call herself “shy” I am quick to correct her. I know she’s not shy — I see her play with her friends and she often is the loudest one in the bunch.


I correct her because of my own experience. For some reason or another, there was a time in my life that I believed I was shy. I accepted this about myself and held back from engaging with people or new situations. I believed I was too shy to talk to new people. What I discovered about myself later on is that I am not shy at all. I am observant and cautious, but not shy. I had limited my behavior for years because of one little word. I thought it was just the way I was so I didn’t try not to be.


In my acting class in college, we would often do written character analyses of the characters we were playing. Two of the questions used to guide this process were, “What do other characters say about your character?” and “What does your character say about herself?” To answer the questions we would go through the script and write down what was said. These words helped give us a sense for how our character fit into the world of the play. 


What if you — or your child — had to do this exercise in real life? What words do we say about them or about ourselves? Upon completion of the drill, in what way would we discover we fit into our worlds?

Words are powerful. Children are always listening and mine seem to listen the most when I’m not talking to them. What are your children hearing?

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