Mean girls, the sequel - FamilyEducation

Mean girls, the sequel

May 23,2011
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.

As I mentioned in Friday's post, I chaperoned a first grade field trip to the North Carolina zoo at the end of last week. When I walked T. into the school building and into the classroom on field trip morning, I was given the list of kids who I would be chaperoning for the outing. I was a little concerned but happy to see the name of M. (not her real initial, FYI),  a girl in T.'s class who sometimes, when-it-suits-her is T.'s friend. As I wrote back in December, we've been trying all school year to help T. work through this confusing situation, to help her figure out how to interact with this particular child and it's been an up-and-down journey overall. Maybe spending the day with M. and T. would shed some light on the situation; maybe I could help facilitate some positive interactions between the two of them.

"Oh look, M." I said to the girl, showing her the name on the list. "You get to be in my group!"

The girl pulled a completely sullen face, right in T.'s face. "Why do I ALWAYS have to be in a group with T.?" She moaned. "I don't WANT to be in T.'s group."

Then came a chorus of comments from the girls around us. "T.'s mom--M. doesn't like T. Did you know that? M. doesn't like T."

I was pretty speechless over all this, actually. I looked around frantically for the teacher, for back-up. I have noticed that my threshold for tolerating poor behavior in children is pretty big: I am very conscious of how other parents and children may judge L., or be hurt by something he might point out in his matter-of-fact way, and so I always try and build in some leeway for every child. Maybe they don't mean to be rude. Maybe there are underlying reasons for the rudeness/poor behavior I don't know about. Maybe they are unhappy, and insecure. But I have to admit I was shaken by not only this child's comments, but the chorus of remarks made by the other girls. I said, icily, "That wasn't very kind, M." followed by "Well that's okay, you don't have to be in our group" and I made arrangements with the teacher to switch her to another one.

All afternoon at the zoo, though, I second-guessed my move and wondered if it wouldn't have been better to keep T. and M. in one group, so I could monitor what was going on, and help the situation. But then I'd think, would *I* have wanted to spend the day with a girl who had just hurt my feelings, and who, apparently didn't like me? No, not really.

Not at all.

I felt so mama-bear upset inside for T., who tries her best to be a friend to all; who has such a big heart--one she is only too wiling to share with everyone. I also felt dismayed yet again to realize that it all starts so early--the cliquey behavior that seems to follow girls everywhere; the need to form and re-form friendships in that flavor-of-the-day way that I remember having so much trouble coping with myself; the mind games, the calculated withholding and offering of friendship the way you'd barter  prices at a market stall. It's a tangled social web that girls can weave, that's for sure. I spent a long time myself trying to pick my way through that web all through school and in college. Even now, some of my own distrust of female relationships comes from too many bad experiences with too many mean girls. 

I also find myself ill-equipped when it comes to dealing with a child who hurts my own child in that way, with words, and I'm filled with so many questions: What do you say in this situation? What if you overstep some boundary and say too much? Or correct too harshly? How do you begin to teach your own child how to grow a thick skin, when you, the parent, spends so much time struggling with this yourself? 

Here's the advice I gave T. when we got home. Be kind. Be compassionate (the ultimate weapon: no one can find fault with compassion). Be polite. But if anybody is mean to you with words, walk away. Imagine the words just flowing from one ear through to the other and out again, where they will float away and be lost. Don't let those words stay inside of you because if you do, they'll linger and cause damage. If anyone is mean to you with actions--especially ones that cause you pain, tell a teacher and a parent right away. And always, always, hold your head up high. Don't let anybody ever--EVER--drag it down.