Tiny, Tiny Mean Girls
As children reach their transition years, the issues that we’ve been able to keep in the back of our minds move closer to our daily lives. With two daughters, it’s the concept of “mean girls.” The 2004 comedy starring Lindsey Lohan was a hit in the US as it followed the travails of a young girl moving to a new school who faces off with arch villains in the form of the popular girls. The concept of the Mean Girl is the sort of popular child who acts as a social bully to her peers, enforcing norms — whether it’s what kind of clothes to wear or how to talk. In the movie, the girls were in high school — well into their teens.
Not so anymore.
We have an 8-year old and a 4-year old, and amazingly enough, both have to deal with “mean girl” situations in their own school. And today we face an interesting challenge presented by their divergent personalities. Our older daughter is very outgoing and easily makes friends. She like pretty much anyone she meets and finds common ground. What’s the problem you say? Well, if anything, she is so eager to get along with people, that she also tends to want to get along with “mean girls.”
This means that our older daughter can sometimes, unwittingly, behave like a mean girl. For example, the other day she engaged in a secret-keeping exercise where her fellow girl friends shared a secret but exclude one friend. The excluded friend was a downcast. What should you do when you find this happening? My solution was to send a quick message to her excluded friend checking on her and letting her mother know that I didn’t find this behavior to be acceptable. I also talked to my daughter – albeit briefly and calmly – about not doing that sort of stuff. In this case, the mother of her excluded friend was grateful that we noticed the issue and cared enough to send a message.
The incident will probably be long forgotten among the friends, but you never know.
So everything is perfectly fine with our 4-year old, right? A decade ago, researchers were already arguing that “mean girl” syndrome can begin as early as 3. The study’s author, Jamie Ostrov, wrote that “relational agression behaviors” can start very early in life. It bears repeating — our daughters can begin acting like Machiavellian cutthroats when they still wear pull-up diapers. In fact, our youngest daughter routinely comes home talking about one or two friends who tell her that she is “not [their] friend.”
So what do you do with such young children? In this case, we decided that making a big deal of the issue with our daughter or her friends was likely to be met with heavy resistance. After all, no parent wants to believe that their young, cute 4-year-old is engaged in mean-spirited behavior. So instead we’ve tried to arm our young daughter with techniques to deal with the issue. First, we encourage her to tell her teacher about things that concern him. Second, we tell her to “find new friends.”
The most powerful technique for dealing with the issue is to teach your children, as we have, to have two or three real friends. In the era of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, the truth is that social media has devalued deep social relationships in favor of superficial contact. We get photos of one another ad nauseum, but we don’t get a quiet, meaningful conversation. We have taught our daughters to build strong connections with fewer friends, rather than try to be popular.
If you do so, you will find that you have equipped your children with a real powerful tool to fight against “mean girls” syndrome. You will give them a lasting feeling of self-worth that comes with having a strong friendship. Also, such friendships teach our girls to themselves be generous, so that they avoid becoming mean girls themselves.
The movie Mean Girls was comical because we saw a clearly adult actor acting like high school children. But as the issue has progressed downward toward our youngest children, it becomes just another case of our children growing up too fast. But this is one issue where we can have enormous influence as parents if we so choose.