With two daughters now in middle school, I catch myself dispensing mixed messages. On one hand, I tell them to "Just do your best!" and on the other hand is the proviso "So long as doing your best means producing high quality work." With these contradictory messages, I'm an emblem of the cultural pressure bearing down on preteen girls to be everything to everyone: To be cheerful and kind; authentic and true; socially adept and academically successful. I'm a magazine ad promoting false ideals.
I'm the entire Ban Bossy campaign and controversy rolled into a mom.
According to Ban Bossy research, boys who speak up are lauded as leaders. When girls speak up, oftentimes they're labeled "bossy." Such a label can take its toll, diminishing a girl's self-esteem. Ban Bossy claims that by middle school girls are 25 percent less likely to take the lead, thus derailing themselves from the leadership track.
Founded by Facebook COO and LeanIn.org founder, Sheryl Sandberg, and in connection with the Girl Scouts of the USA, the Ban Bossy initiative urges people to stop using the word bossy. The goal is to encourage girls to speak up, to become a bigger part of the conversation, and to ultimately assume greater leadership positions.
The arguments from the other side run the gamut. Not all girls strive to be leaders, some contend. Banning a word is censorship, others maintain. The Ban Bossy campaign is a "little bossy," yet others wager.
In my opinion, the debate over the actual word as a descriptor is beside the point. The campaign is what matters: I'm all for emboldening girls through education to lead without fear of being labeled.
This year, my daughters in middle school were required to participate in a fair number of "group projects." From History Day, to the Science Fair, to the Classics presentation, kids were expected to come together, brainstorm ideas and allocate work. They were supposed to know when they should lead and when they should follow. Of course, they didn't. As I chaperoned a number of these meetings, I observed how some girls rose up and took charge while other girls shrunk.
One mother emailed me, "I hope my daughter isn't being too bossy."
"No, no," I assured her, because even though I wasn't thrilled with my own daughter's lack of assertiveness, I wasn't about to criticize another mother's daughter for taking the reins. I remember all too well how middle school was tricky business, how a girl's confidence hung by a thread. I wasn't about to snip this one's.
After each meeting, I would sit down with my daughter and walk a very fine line. "Working in groups is hard," I would tell her. "It's a matter of asserting your own positions, but also being a great listener to others. Sometimes you have to give in, but other times you need to stand up for yourself."
It's about as easy as negotiating peace in the Middle East, I wanted to add.
I listen to the Ban Bossy debate and apply it to my home. As a mother, I want my daughters to know they're loved. Beyond that, I want them to grow into kind, civic-minded individuals who are centered on a solid moral base. I'm looking for them to grow into good people.
I say this, and I mean it... but it's only part of the story. I also want them to rise to the top. Or, to put it in Sheryl Sandberg's language, I want them to "sit at the table." I admit I'm competitive and driven and believe wholeheartedly in seeing my girls succeed at anything they desire. So I'm on them. I push them, manage their homework, make corrections and send them back to their desks to make it better. I want them to be the kids who raise their hands in class... but I also want them to affirm the comments of their classmates.
I want them to be the quarterback and the cheerleader.
With all these mixed messages, I wonder if I'm getting it right. Each morning I tell my daughters to "Put on a happy face!" (Because being agreeable is a desirable quality.)
And then I add "So you can be helpful and kind!" (Because there is nothing more important than compassion.)
Then I remind them to "Raise your hand, offer an opinion, make yourself known!" (Because showing your teachers you have a unique perspective is key.)
And then (because I know what a drill sergeant I am), I ratchet it down a bit and say "Have fun!" (Because, after all, they're just 12 years old).
But then I warn them the semester is ending, and they really need to "Buckle down if you want to make the honor roll!" (Because even now, it's important to be thinking about college.)
Lastly I remind them to "Just be yourselves!" (So long as that includes being happy, kind, agreeable, assertive and prepared.)
I admit I overload them with input. "Not everything needs to be a teaching moment," my husband reminds me. Added to my two cents is the information they receive from peers and teachers. I'm expecting my preteens to integrate a landslide of information. I just want them to be prepared for whatever might come their way.
According to Sandberg, girls systematically underestimate their own ability. For my daughter to feel insecure about her abilities when she's 12 years old is one thing. Ideally, I'm here to catch her, to correct this misinformation and to teach her that she is worth more than she knows. But it's another thing altogether for her to carry that sense of doubt into adulthood, into relationships, career choices and the internal monologue she engages in each day. The conundrum is how to fortify her now so she's better equipped later.
My best guess is to teach her it's her female prerogative to "lean in" to her ambitions, whether they're corporate, academic or otherwise. It's also her female right to leave the workforce in lieu of motherhood. I toe the line with my mixed messages. But hopefully she'll figure it out: She doesn't really need to be everything to everyone. She just needs to be someone to herself.
Jennifer Handford is the author of the best-selling novel Daughters for a Time. Her second book, Acts of Contrition, will be published in April 2014. Visit her at http://www.jenniferhandford.com.