Every time I walk into my kids’ school, and smell that school smell that cannot really be described (it’s sort of a combination of athletic shoes, day-old pizza, floor polish, and puberty), I’m immediately transported back to 1983, when I was a gangly kid with enormous brown eyes, stringy hair, and feet and teeth that I hadn’t quite grown into yet. I always say that the worst thing about having a child in public school is reliving your childhood traumas -- only now, they’re a million times worse because they’re happening to your kid. Your baby.
Today is my oldest daughter’s last day of 5th grade, and she’s come through elementary school reasonably unscathed, though she’s certainly had her share of ups and downs. She’s a beautiful and graceful ballet dancer, but she seems to have inherited my unfortunate lack of ability, and general disinterest in sports, so she was frequently mocked by overly competitive, testosterone-charged boys in P.E. whenever she messed up. This is almost expected because sports are EVERYTHING! (Please read this with the heavy dose of sarcasm intended).
I lived through this too, and while I’m not happy that my child has to suffer the same fate because of her athletically challenged genes, I’m bothered far more by the cruelty she’s endured at the hands of other girls. You know, the girls who pushed her into her locker, and threw her stuff on the floor when she was in the lunch line. The girls who lead her to believe they were going to invite her to party, so she waited and waited for an invitation that never came. (The next day, they made sure to talk about how, like, totally amazing the party was, right in front of her, just to rub it in.) There was the girl who wrote on my daughter’s arms and clothing with permanent marker, and ate off her tray in the lunchroom, and let’s not forget the girl who shoved her out of her seat on the bus. Of course, there is also the group of girls who judged and nitpicked and criticized, and basically made her feel like a loser.
Every time my daughter came home upset because another girl was mean to her at school, I would ask my mom friends, “WHY? Why do they do this to her?” The most common response was, “That’s just how girls are. They’re mean.”
Most of us have dealt with girls like this at some point in our lives, and what’s really sad is that we have to deal with adults like this, too. Those mean girls grow up to be women, who then have daughters of their own, and the cycle continues. I once read an article that posited that the so-called “Mommy wars” don’t really exist -- they’re simply a creation of the media. I would have to disagree, because I see battles being fought every day. Women who have children criticize those who don’t for being “selfish.” Women who breastfeed/cloth diaper/babywear/co-sleep/you-name-it, judge those who can’t, or don’t want to do any of those things, and vice versa. Of course, we all know about the ongoing battle over working versus staying home.
Another perfect example is how, whenever I write about this topic, certain readers who homeschool rebuke me for letting my daughter go to public school. I once received an email letting me know that public school is “evil,” and I’m doing my child a terrible disservice in letting her be brainwashed by the government.
See? Grown women are mean to each other, too. We just have different methods to our meanness.
When my child is picked on in school, my first instinct, as her mother, is to march down there and rattle some cages, because I too suffered at the hands of the “popular” girls in school, and watching my child endure the same treatment makes me absolutely livid. The big difference between me then and me now is that I’m no longer afraid to speak my mind because I’m not in the throes of crippling adolescent self-consciousness. Even so, it simply would not be appropriate for me to confront the mean girls because they are children, and I’m an adult.
Instead, I’d like to say a few things to their mothers:
Your daughters are watching you. They look to you as an example of how to be a woman, so when you stand around in packs in order to whisper, and gossip, and cut other women down, don’t think they don’t notice. Remember, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Children have to be raised. They can’t simply be allowed to grow up. You owe it to your child, and the rest of the world, to teach her right from wrong. It’s right to be kind and compassionate, responsible and conscientious, thankful and generous and loyal. It’s wrong to be hateful and dishonest and duplicitous. These traits will not win your daughter any true friends… only followers. And they will only follow her out of fear.
It’s difficult for all of us to hear criticism of our children, and I’m sure it’s not easy to learn that your child is a bully. Believe me, I get it. Your first instinct is to defend your kid because she’s your baby and you love her. But you must understand that the kid she picks on is someone’s baby too, and that child probably goes home every day and sobs because she feels worthless and inferior, and every day at school is a nightmare. Imagine how you would feel in her shoes. Or in her mother’s shoes. If you find out that your daughter is a mean girl, PLEASE don’t make excuses for her behavior, because guess what? She’s not perfect, and neither are you. Kids make mistakes, and sometimes they need consequences in order to learn from them. That’s where you come in.
As a woman, and as a mother, you would probably agree that the support and validation of other women is important to you. Naturally, we all want to feel like we belong, that we’re OK, and that we’re not alone. Our daughters, who are small and fragile, need this even more. If your daughter is a mean girl, in spite of how she appears, or what she says or does, she probably needs this most of all. So, tell her that you love her. Tell her that she’s beautiful, special, and important, and please, for her own good, tell her that her behavior is wrong, and she needs to make it right.
Children do as you do -- not as you say. Even if you tell your daughter to be kind, you must lead by example. You must be a person who goes out of her way to include that other mom who is hanging back, shy and uncertain, on the sidelines. Instead of joining in the gossip, be a person who looks for the good in others. Be a loyal friend, defend the underdog, give to the less fortunate, support those in crisis, be slow to judge and quick to empathize, keep your word, and tell the truth. Show your daughter that this is what a real woman does.
In spite of the title, this post isn’t really just for moms of mean girls. It’s for all of us, because we ALL fail at these things -- myself included. We’re human, and we want to fit in, and it’s much easier to follow the crowd than to stand out. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of being judgmental and critical and sometimes mean -- if not necessarily out loud, then certainly in my head -- and it occurred to me today that my daughter probably overhears me griping to my husband about another mom, or sees me roll my eyes behind someone’s back, and she thinks that kind of behavior is O.K.
I don’t ever want to be the mother of a mean girl. I don’t think anyone does, so let’s not accept that this is “just how girls are.” Let’s help them make a change.
It starts with us.
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