Why Stubborn Kids Deserve Praise, Not Punishment

February 16th 2016

Laura Donovan

There's good news for anyone who was ever called "bossy" as a child. According to a 2015 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, you're bound for success.

The study — which observed children between the ages of 8 and 12 and checked back with them several decades later as adults — reports that youngsters who demonstrate defiance and stubbornness early in life had more successful careers and higher paychecks than their non-stubborn counterparts. The study was was initiated by researchers at the University of Luxembourg in 1968, and picked back up in 2008.

At the beginning of the study, researchers observed the children for characteristics such as academic conscientiousness, defiance, and entitlement.

The kids who didn't listen to their parents and who chose not to follow rules turned out to be successful adults. The study doesn't provide a hard explanation for these results, but researchers believed that stubborn kids might earn higher grades because they are more competitive with other students. It's also possible that this early childhood behavior sets them up to lobby more for themselves at work and to fight for higher pay.

How being "bossy" affects men and women differently.

The 2015 study contributes to an ongoing conversation over the characterization of assertive women as "bossy," particularly in the workplace.

There's a body of research, including a 2006 study conducted through Harvard University, that that supports the belief that women are punished for attempting to appear as assertive as men:

Society rewards and reinforces different types of behavior for men and women, and it is not always good advice for women to act more like men in order to claim the same resources and privileges. Research on feminine modesty, for instance, shows that women tend to present themselves more modestly than do men, and that a modest self-presentation style tends to undermine perceived competence, particularly as compared to those who self-promote in a stereotypically masculine way. However, if women attempt to overcome this “defiency” by behaving in a more masculine, self-promoting manner, they are perceived as technically skilled but lacking in social competence.

Former Interim CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao — who famously sued her previous employer Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Bryers unsuccessfully for gender discrimination — faced this sort of unbalanced treatment first hand. During the trial, lawyers for Kleiner-Perkins cited Pao's performance reviews, claiming she had "sharp elbows." In contrast, men at her office received similar feedback, but they were promoted while she was not.

Bringing Bossy Back.

In 2014, Facebook COO and "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg launched the "Ban Bossy" movement in hopes of de-stigmatizing the word. Enlisting celebrities like Beyoncé, the campaign asserted than young girls should be praised rather than punished for demonstrating leadership skills.

There was some backlash to the "Ban Bossy" campaign, though, from people who felt it was an attempt to police language. Others alleged it would excuse bullying among little girls. But Sandberg clarified in a 2014 interview with ABC News that there's an important distinction between leading and bullying.

"Leadership is not bullying and leadership is not aggression," Sandberg said. "Leadership is the expectation that you can use your voice for good. That you can make the world a better place."