Mean girls

December 16,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Most parenting advice books and websites and even pediatricians push the importance of eating dinner together as a family, at least a few times a week. If we flub other areas of this parenting business, we have always--always--taken family meals very seriously. Even when the kids were in highchairs we would pull the chair up to the dining room table and eat together for as long as they would let us, and let baby L. or baby T. watch this strange daily ritual unfolding. I can't emphasize enough how important family mealtime has been for us, and how important I think it is for every family. While mealtimes with L. have been far from perfect, (food just has the opposite effect on him--he clams up and shuts down) coming together each night for dinner has helped T. open up to us. We've noticed there are two times a day when T. seems particularly willing to share in any ups and downs from her school day: dinnertime and bedtime. She is very open and talkative in general about her day at school, chattering in the van home about this and that, but those heavy things that weigh her heart down take a little longer to surface into the light.

Last week, after L. had asked his connecting question ("Are you excited about Christmas?") and disappeared in a flash, T. looked thoughtful. Then the floodgates opened: at lunch that day she had asked her friend E. that same question several times and M. had ignored her. Then, M.'s BFF E. turned and asked M. the very same question and M. answered her, turning her back on T. and neatly cutting her out of the conversation. T.'s feelings, understandably, were terribly hurt, and she burst into tears. Fortunately one of the teachers on duty intervened and gave the other two girls a talking to about kindness and friendship but T. was still wounded and confused.

Mean girls! I posted to my Facebook page later that night. I was upset for T., and angry, too, and disappointed to find out that first graders were being so cliquey and mean. The situation she had experienced was one I imagined would play out years down the road--maybe in third grade, or fourth grade or, even middle school.

Why? I wanted to know. Why is it some children learn at such an early age how to manipulate, exclude, and wound so effectively? Of course this wasn't the first time I've wondered these questions, because I've tossed and turned many nights thinking about bullying--the bullied and the bullies. But mean girls almost belong in another category, really, and knowing they're out there as six-year olds was sobering and very sad.

The next day I left my office and made a quick run to T.'s school to eat lunch with her. I wanted to see the situation for myself, size up those girls, give T. a friendly, loving face, reassure myself.

When the time came to walk with T. to the cafeteria M. appeared next to T.

"Pick me to eat with you! Pick me!" She said, excitedly. Having a parent come to lunch is an exciting event, since the lucky child gets to pick a friend to eat with and sit at a special table.

I watched T. for her reaction. Inside myself the pettier, adult, I've-been-around-the-block-a-few-times me was hoping T. would pick someone else to sit with us. Be strong, I willed her. Pick that quiet girl over there who seems so much nicer than M

But instead T.'s eyes lit up and she picked M.

I sat through lunch fighting my own past, and the flashbacks that were surfacing in me. Even if I'd wished and wished and willed it to be otherwise, I knew six-year old me would have picked M., too. My heart would have danced to be wanted that way, by someone who somehow seemed so desirable as a friend. When I was in elementary school (and beyond) I had to learn the hard way not to give myself so wholly to certain friendships, to those mean girls in my life who were so good at spinning a situation, lining up people like chess pieces, playing the game of popularity and friendship-bartering in that expert way that left me so in awe of them. I wanted things to be different for T. I wanted things to be different for L., too, but T.'s experiences touched a nerve in me that I see now is still a little raw, still throbbing and twanging away, like an old, rusty wire, stretched taut into the past.