A Daddy’s Letter to His Daughter (About Bossiness, Power, and Authority)

Dear Little One,

Yesterday, I overheard your brother tell you, “You’ll always be a little sister.” And you responded, with all the fire we have come to expect of you, “I’m not always going to be a little girl—I’m going to be a big person!”

You are four years-old, and you may be little on the outside, but there is nothing little about you on the inside.

ban bossy

Photo Credit: red twolips via Compfight cc

However, your brother will not be the last person to make you feel little on the inside. And I’m guessing someone will try to keep you feeling small with one teeny, tiny word:

BOSSY.

With that word, they want you to remain small in the one place that really matters: your heart. They know the truth: sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can really shame you. Shame you into silence.

I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose. They’re just doing what powerful people do—instinctively clinging to their power. Men, in particular, will be inclined to use BOSSY on you. I don’t blame them. Most men have been taught from birth to believe their own worth is predicated on being strong, powerful, and in control. They’re just doing what they’ve been trained to do:

They want you to doubt the authority residing at the center of you.

The dictionary defines authority as “a persuasive force.” I’m in awe of your persuasive force. But the world will be terrified of it. Because when the “little” people on the margins of the world begin to feel strong—when the powerless begin to sense the authority hibernating in their hearts—the powerful tremble.

So when someone calls you BOSSY, I hope you will respond with two little words of your own:

Thank you.

And then tell them you have banned BOSSY in the most important place of all: your heart.

This is the beginning of a letter I wrote for Disney’s Babble.com, in conjunction with LeanIn.org’s “Ban Bossy Campaign.” To read the rest of the letter click here.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: Confessions of a Parent (From the Dinner Table)

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sally

    Wonderful letter and reflections. Inspired me as a Grandma to value deeply and respond carefully to any beautiful girls I meet. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Words do have power, Sally, especially a grandmother’s words. I’m sure you’ll choose wisely!

  • Christina Davila

    Once again your posts have given me hope and strength. My mother gets called bossy on the regular. Her boss told her the other day that she was too “direct”, but later in the conversation she suggested my mother tone down her ‘bossiness’. Whether people want to admit it or not there is a glass ceiling. There is an unspoken tradition that a man who focuses on business is deemed efficient, while the counterpart female is called bossy. When a woman puts aside her emotions in lieu of business, she is called heartless (think the Devil Wears Prada). If a woman incorporates emotions into her work, she is being ‘overemotional’. I’ve been called unstable several times because my emotions were visible and that in the eyes of men is unacceptable. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. I believe my generation (I’m 22) will have to guide our baby girls how to overcome the stigmas and labels. Our mothers have fought tirelessly, but being called bossy still stings my mother to her very soul. We will lead this revolution and our daughters will have to seal the victory. My dream is to own my own business; become the CEO of a company I started. I love that you differentiated between power and authority. My authority will not diminish no matter what they call me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Christina, I’m so glad this letter could encourage you. The glass ceiling does exist. Power will shatter it. But authority will open the window and walk through with grace, never looking back.

  • Erica D.

    I will be sharing this with my “BOSSY” fourteen-year old! I have a feeling she has already internalized this message by the grace of God because she been willful since birth–even sassing the lactation nurse when she was sleepy! However, it is a reminder to her mother that she’s just fine the way she is. I don’t need to worry about her or change her one bit.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Erica, I’m glad this gave you more piece about who your daughter is. My best to you and to her!

  • Matthew Rutledge

    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the “Ban Bossy” campaign since I first saw it a few weeks back. My conclusion: It’s a poor implementation of a good idea. Let me explain.

    The end goal behind “Ban Bossy” seems to be allowing young women to assert their leadership potential. This is a noble and honorable goal. My contention is with the message being propagated: It’s OK to be bossy.

    The problem is, it’s not OK to be bossy. I don’t care if you are male or female, old or young. Acting “bossy” demonstrates a failure of leadership resulting in falling back on authority to accomplish a goal. I have an example from my personal life that will help.

    Laundry in my house is a big deal. More often than not, I am the one in charge of this chore. It goes well enough until it is time to sort the socks. The problem I have is I cannot tell which kid gets which socks. But the kids know. So I enlist their help whenever possible. Oftentimes it starts with a simple request, “hey, can you please help me with the socks?” And that frequently goes unanswered. Things quickly escalate to me walking in the room, turning off the TV and using my “serious voice” to demand help with the socks. That’s bossy. In a year or two my 8 year old will no longer put up with it. (And she shouldn’t!) Before too long, the 3 year old will follow because she’s good at learning from her big sister.

    Two weeks ago, I was having a very good day and made the socks into a game. It was a terrible game, but still a game. There was full buy in by both kids. There was laughing. The socks got sorted. This is leadership. I don’t get here nearly often enough.

    The “Ban Bossy” campaign says it’s OK to act bossy. But it isn’t. It is OK to be a leader. It is OK to find ways to get people to do what you want. But it isn’t OK to “boss” people into doing things.

    I have been doing a lot of thinking about the jobs I’ve had in life and the leadership skills to which I have been exposed. All of the leaders (bosses, coaches, whatever) had the authority to make me do what they needed or wanted. But the only leaders I didn’t resent were the ones that forgot about the authority and got me to buy into the end goal and showed me how my participation helped that end goal. In the working world, any boss that said anything along the lines of “because I said so” (the equal to me walking in and turning off the TV on sock night) didn’t last long. Either I walked out, or upper management got wind and addressed the issue.

    What I have seen so far with the “Ban Bossy” campaign is a statement that it is OK to flex leadership muscle with no direction on how to do so without creating resentment.

    Having a drive for leadership is perfectly acceptable. In my mind, anyone who doesn’t want to lead at some point is suspect. But there is a difference between being a leader and being bossy. Leadership is to be nurtured and cultivated. Bossy should be pushed into proper leadership before it becomes a real problem.

    So yes, by all means we should Ban Bossy. But not in the way the campaign seems to think we should. Rather than say it’s OK to act bossy, we should make opportunities to show how bossy fails in the long run and demonstrate and teach true leadership qualities that get the same end result without the long term damage.

    • Tere F

      Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful response. You are absolutely spot on! Unfortunately, yours is a more mature perspective and most people don’t take enough time to think for themselves. I find it incredible that the people who have jumped on this bandwagon look past words like retard, fatty, stupid etc and want to BAN bossy. Really?

    • Parsley

      Yes, I hear you. On the other hand, I heard the woman who started the Ban Bossy campaign on the radio say that she had given a lot of presentations to various age groups and always asked the men/boys in the room to raise their hands if they had ever been called “bossy,” and almost none of them ever raised their hands. Then she asked the women/girls if they had ever been called “bossy,” and many, many hands went up. In other words, among other things, it is a gendered message. I have not done the research myself, but my hunch is that sometimes women and girls get called “bossy” for any kind of leadership/authority they are exhibiting, even if it is a more nuanced, not particularly authoritarian kind of leadership. So, in your example, if this was in the workplace and not at home, even assuming that you can set the goals and determine how to best create buy-in on the team – creating the rules of the game, if you will – would still be considered “bossy” when attempted by a women, even if these activities are appropriate to her position in the organization, when they wouldn’t be considered “bossy” if a man did them. So yes, hyper-authoritarian bossiness is maybe not something we want to encourage, but I think more things get called “bossy” than actually are.

      • Parsley

        I just went and read the longer version of this letter, that Dr. Kelly links to above, in which he goes into more detail about the kind of authority he wants to encourage. Very much in line with your thoughts.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Yes, Matthew, I really couldn’t agree with you more. I acknowledged in a comment to Jennifer above that a more straightforward essay (rather than a letter) may have been a better medium to unpack these ideas. But I think your example of the sock folding is a great example, and it’s lovely to hear about a parent out there thinking through these things. Power uses control to get its way. Authority acts out of love to achieve what is best for everyone involved. May you continue to act with your laundry authority, Matt. Your kids are lucky.

    • Temi

      My boss was so bossy this morning. She does not know how to motivate people to do things, but she knows how to bully her way. By the way, I’m also a female.

  • Jennifer Koski

    I love the topic. I am, however, getting confused about whether you’re writing about calling someone else “bossy” or people actually being bossy – or are you making the point that calling someone else bossy IS bossy? 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Jennifer, Thanks for the question. I agreed to write this post for Babble as a letter some time ago, before all the different nuances in the campaign became apparent. In hindsight, it might have been better to commit to a more straightforward blog post so these ideas could have been unpacked. My hope in writing the letter was to begin to unpack some of the power dynamics inherent in the word and in the way it is used. For instance, if a parent calls their child bossy, and the same child responds with, “Well, you’re being bossy, too,” how many parents will concede to this fact and seek a change in behavior in both parties? Versus how many parents would respond with something like, “Well, I AM the boss,” or “I’m the parent, so I get to be bossy.” I wanted to open up a conversation about how children can have authority and how that can call into questions some of the unspoken, and not necessarily healthy, power dynamics in parent-child relationships.

  • roy

    Be in the world.. Not of the world.. The reader’s comment about leadership is more authentic then the political campaign of lean in.. I’m sure your heart is good.. But will you settle for “good” ? Make time for excellence..

  • dolly chohan

    The change i experience after reading your blog is i hv started to hv a liking for this word “bossy”.I now know why people use “bossy f
    or females specially at work place.