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.