The other day, I was arguing with my four-year-old daughter, like I often do. She was asking for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch, and I was telling her that we weren’t having grilled cheese sandwiches. We were having peanut butter sandwiches. I hadn’t started making anything, yet. I was getting out the bread, and listening to my strong-willed little girl assert her opinion on what we should be making for lunch because, you know, that’s what she does.
For someone who can’t drive and makes zero money, she has some pretty strong opinions on where we go and what we eat. She stomped her light-up Moana Croc, and insisted. And then I blurted something I try not to say, but it just came out before I had a chance to catch it. It was something that I’d probably heard my parents tell my older sister a million times because she also had some strong opinions.
“You’re being pretty bossy today,” I said.
Aspen placed her hand on the hip of her flow print dress, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I’m not bossy. I’m a leader.” Something we have told her, and of course it came back full circle. Doesn’t it always?
I stopped arguing and just looked at her for a moment. I was left with a few decisions as a parent. I could continue to assert my position on this whole peanut butter versus grilled cheese sandwich issue. I could lay down the law, and squash her little spirit because I’m the parent, the alpha and omega, and she had no business telling me, her father, what we were having for lunch. Her brother and sister were agreeable enough, and I wasn’t in the mood for further work to get them fed.
But then I thought about the kind of girl I wanted to raise. Frankly, I want her to be a leader. I want her to be the kind of woman who stands up to her boss. I want her to look a man in the eye, and tell him “no” or “yes” or “leave” or “stay” or whatever needs to be said. I want her to feel confident and empowered when she does so. And sure, if we are looking at the definition of strong leadership, stomping your foot and making demands probably doesn’t qualify (current administration aside, of course). But she’s four. I mean, honestly, she can’t be expected to be a strong leader just yet. She’s a cute kid and doing well in school, but she’s…four.
What she did do, however, was identify herself, at this tender age, as a leader. The fact that she had the gumption to look her father in the eye after he called her bossy, something he shouldn’t have been saying in the first place, and then correct him, was astounding. It was exactly the kind of woman I wanted her to be as an adult.
My little girl is strong-willed. She’s our youngest, and the joke in our house is that if she were our first, she’d have been our last. She was the first to be sent to the principal’s office for refusing to do an assignment. She was the only child who would look mom, dad, grandma, teachers, really anyone right in the face and say, “ummm… nope.” And while so many people use derogatory names for children like her — bratty, bossy pants, trouble, to name a few — Aspen has so many qualities that, if seen in an adult, would be labeled as passionate or determined.
Here’s the thing with strong-willed children: If parents and teachers don’t squash it out, they will likely grow up to be passionate, strong, brave, independent adults. They will be the movers and the shakers. They will be the ones to stand up in a work meeting and disagree. They will be the ones to say, “But have you tried it this way?”
In children, though, a strong will is seen as a detriment, and frankly, we have to re-frame the way we look at those qualities. I know it isn’t easy, it’s a daily struggle for me, but it’s necessary and worth it.
So back to that moment with my little girl and the sandwiches… I looked her straight in the face. I thought about how important it was for her to identify herself as a leader. I thought about how I’m in my mid-30s, and I still don’t identify myself as a leader. I thought about how, in the leader department, she was already way ahead of me. Naturally, we would have her whole life to teach her how to act like a good leader that is worthy of being followed, but right then, I didn’t assert myself. Instead I said, “You’re right. I’m sorry for calling you bossy. You are a leader, and I’m going to make you a grilled cheese sandwich.”
She gave me a confident look, and nodded with satisfaction, her lips puckered.
Then, once her sandwich was done, and cut into three triangles, just the way she likes it, I sat across from her at the table, and said, “Let’s talk about what it means to be a good leader.”