Too young to be 'mean girls'

Too young to be 'mean girls'

A colleague forwarded this disturbing story in The New York Times, about how the “mean girl” phenomenon seems to be starting earlier and earlier. Examples: a 7-year-old ostracized by her classmates tells her mother, "I hate myself." Kindergarteners make fun of other students who can't read chapter books. A first-grader is shunned because she can't afford cool classroom supplies.

I can’t say I’ve heard of anything that bad in our circle of 6- and 7-year-olds. Most moms I know would shudder at the behavior (by kids and parents) in that story. But I can see small signs emerging.

Friday was pajama day at our school, and my second-grader was thrilled to wear the new “Kit Kittredge” American Girl nightgown she’d gotten for her birthday. As she walked proudly up to the playground, we noticed three girls in her class playing on the monkey bars. They were wearing pajamas, and when they saw my daughter one yelled, “She’s wearing a dress!” and they all laughed.

I turned to my daughter, who had stopped in her tracks with this frozen smile on her face. I could feel my blood rising, and said in a controlled but firm voice, “It’s not a dress, girls, it’s a NIGHTGOWN!”

They paused and said, “Oh, it’s a nightgown,” and went back to playing. My daughter laughed nervously, then ran off to play with them, and that was that.

Not a big deal, in the big scheme of things. I probably overreacted. But I know it’s just shades of things to come.

I still vividly remember the horrible day in fifth grade when, after I’d been out sick one day, all the girls decided it would be “fun” to pretend they didn’t like me anymore. One girl (I still love you for this, Geri Cunningham) refused to go along, and was the only one who talked to me that day. I kept wondering what I'd done to deserve the shunning, until she let me in on the "joke."

On the other hand, I could have done more to stand up to such sadistic groupthink. In high school, I watched as friends made fun of other girls they thought of as nerdy or weird. I didn’t necessarily join in, but neither did I take them to task.

I’ve tried hard to teach my daughter how to navigate these waters. Be your own person. If somebody says something mean, tell them it’s not nice, or not something a friend would do. If they persist, walk away, and play with someone else.

We’ve toned down role-playing games she dreamed up that proved too divisive, like the one where girls were fighting to portray the lead character in a movie. We talk about how “clubs” can be a bad idea, because they lead to exclusion. And I remind her how hurtful it is to feel left out.

I hope it helps her in the years ahead.

I know I can’t control this. My daughter and her friends will have to learn how to sort through it on their own, and they'll probably learn some bitter lessons. I’ll remind her in middle school and high school that people become nicer in college, and start accepting each other for who they are.

In the meantime, I hope she can be just a little bit like Geri Cunningham.

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Jodi Heckel wrote on October 13, 2010 at 2:10 pm
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Very nice blog post. We all want to protect our kids, equip them to deal with the bad behavior of others, and make sure they know how to treat others well. But we know they'll likely endure some hurtful words or actions during their childhoods, and it just rips your heart out as a parent, doesn't it?

PRGrad wrote on October 13, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I was left literally speechless when I first witnessed something along these lines several months ago with my then newly 3-year-old daughter. We were waiting for a flight at a major airport and she'd been playing very nicely with a group of kids in the children's play area near our gate. She's a very experienced traveller (flown over 21,000 miles this year already) and, as a result, is a very social little girl.

Knowing that our flight was nearing, we took a short walk to the restroom but she couldn't wait to get back to the play area to spend some time with the other kids. As we approached I noticed that there were a few additions to the group, two of which appeared to be sisters who were sitting side-by-side on the slide. The girls looked to be very close in age, maybe 5 and 6, and they were very nicely dressed in what appeared to be plaid school uniform jumpers, and appropriately coordinated backpacks were perched on their backs. My daughter quickly noticed there were new kids in the mix and literally bounced up to these two young ladies, grinning from ear to ear. I watched in awe as they stood up on the slide, they each put their hand on their protruding hips in what seemed to be in unison, and the older of the two looked at my daugther and said, "You can't go down this slide. We don't have to be nice to you. We're mean and I only have to be nice to my sister." Not joking!

I watched the smile wilt from my daughter's face and I quickly scanned the area to see how their supervising parent was going to handle the situation at hand. Through a process of quick elimination, I saw their mother standing along the perimeter of the play area talking on her phone and DID NOTHING to reprimand her children. If that had been my daughter, she would have immediately been instructed to apologize and then would have been removed from the play area, while being "counseled" on the reasons such talk was unacceptable.

We remained in the play area until our flight left and my daughter didn't really seem to shy away from the sisters. But, she did approach me at one point asking if she could go down the slide. I made sure I was speaking loudly enough that both the sisters and their mother could hear me tell my daughter that the slide was there for everyone to play on and that if she wanted to go down it, she was more than welcome to as long as she was polite to the others around her.

I remember encountering stuff like this in junior high, but never at the age of 3! I called my husband and told him the story, telling him that I really wasn't looking forward to the teenage years if we were already dealing with stuff like this.

Julie Wurth wrote on October 21, 2010 at 6:10 pm
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Thanks for sharing that story. Sounds like you reacted the way I would have, reassuring your daughter and making sure the other kids get the message! Especially at age 3. I remember being shocked when a 3-year-old girl did something similar to my son when he was 2.

I realize that when they're older -- even now with my 10-year-old -- I can't step in and solve it. But at 3, or even 6 or 7, there's still time to teach both sides why that behavior isn't acceptable, in a nice but firm way, in the hope it will give them tools for the future. And like you, I try to be vigilant about my own kids' actions as well!