The labels we use

Image from Ban Bossy

“Once those words are out of your mouth they will bounce around space forever, you can never, ever take them back. They will always be out there, somewhere,” is how my mother used to remind me of the power of language when I got too cutting with my big brother, or strident with my friends. While her science surrounding how sound travels may have been slightly suspect, the sentiment was a good one. I appreciate it even more now that I’m a mother and very aware that the things I say to my children will have a lasting consequence.

As the mother of a daughter and a son, I’m particularly aware that I – and the society we live in – can have different expectations about how boys and girls should behave. I’ve been made even aware of this since reading Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. One sentence seemed to jump off the page to me. She writes, “When a girl tries to lead, she is often labelled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend. As someone who was called this for much of my childhood, I know that it is not a compliment.”

I have to admit I have frequently warned my daughter of the perils of being bossy, but I doubt I would say the same thing to my son, yet I want to encourage both of them to be leaders. I’m certainly not the only one who was struck by this thought and Sheryl Sandberg and others have started a campaign to ‘Ban Bossy’ and instead encourage girls to aspire to leadership roles. Like many things that become very big very quickly, the campaign has already come under fierce attack. Sure it’s not perfect, but words are powerful – and labels can be particularly destructive – we need to be careful how we talk to our children, daughters and sons alike.