McGill-a-Grams: De-Mythologizing ‘Mean Girls’

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Labeling kids doesn’t give them the head space to change, but putting a stop to bad behavior requires a community effort.

By Shannon McGill

'Mean girls' don't need labeling, just education. Credit: Kaela Parkhouse. http://goo.gl/KZ9OJJ.Shannon,

I have a problem and I need a solution fast. 

My daughters often come home from school, sports, activities, etc., complaining that they are being mistreated by little girls or that they have witnessed their friends/classmates being picked on. 

Recently, there was an incident at a sporting event that involved another girl threatening physical violence toward one of my daughters.

I volunteer at their activities pretty frequently and I see firsthand that it is not a small problem. With each new school year, the issue seems to grow and I am fed up. 

Many parents tell their children to ignore the perpetrator, but that does nothing to end the cycle of little-girl viciousness. I am looking for a plan for my daughters so that when they are mistreated, they can handle the situation.

Love,

Mama Bear 

P.S. Notice I didn’t use the word “bully” because I think it is overused and perpetuates the rampant labeling of kids.

Dear Mama Bear,

I’m glad to have the opportunity to address this issue on behalf of you and your daughters. Girl-on-girl aggression, both physical and psychological, is nothing new; we all know that. I was once a target of mean girls myself.

Actually, it was one girl in particular that tortured me throughout my formative years. Let me tell you about her.

She was a perfect, straight-A student with perfect, beautiful hair. She had a perfect, petite little figure with perfectly matched and spotless clothes, and Mama Bear, she was a horror to me. A PURE HORROR. An absolute hell-hound, but discreet.

Once in math class, I guess I was about 12 or 13, I saw her twittering behind her hand (the old-fashioned twittering, Mama Bear; it used to mean a soft, high-pitched, staccato laugh).

I was seated right beside her, and so I asked her what she was laughing at. She told me, “Shannon, sometimes I have to laugh when I look at you because I feel so good knowing how much prettier I am than you.”

Mama Bear, I know you think there is no villain in existence who would say such a thing to a 13-year-old girl, but there is. And, as in most cases, that villain was ANOTHER 13-YEAR OLD GIRL.

This isn’t a story I’m inventing for the benefit of this stupid advice column, okay? That crap actually happened, and Mama Bear, sometimes I wish she had punched me in the face instead of saying that to me because it has been echoing in my head ever since, and I am 37 years old.

If grown men or women were taunting the girls we love, we would be going after them with torches and pitchforks. Yet when the girls in our lives are harassed by other girls, we minimize it.

That is the power of the wounds girls inflict on other girls. All this time later, I am still angry at that girl (who is now a woman I don’t even know), and still angry at myself for my episode of passive victimhood.

It’s funny because if grown men or women—or even young boys—were taunting the girls we love, we would be going after them with torches and pitchforks. Yet when the girls in our lives are harassed by other girls, we minimize it.

“Oh, just ignore it, honey.” “Oh, don’t listen, that girl is just mean.” Or THE WORST: “Oh, she’s just jealous.”

Even the way we characterize girl-aggressors denies the awful power they have. We consider them some kind of joke; it’s the trope that movies like Heathers and Clueless and Mean Girls are built upon.

We have to start by acknowledging the power that girls and women have to really hurt and abuse other people. We don’t talk about that enough. Girls—even young girls—are not helpless, and they are not always sugar and spice and the rest. Sometimes they can really do a number on you! No kidding!

So first let me say that I think it is important not to dismiss your daughter’s complaints as being petty or childish or silly. Cruel words and acts have a kind of staying power that kind acts don’t. And, when you’re a child, before your identity is fully formed, they still can warp you. When somebody calls you “ugly” or “weird,” you become ugly or weird in your own mind’s eye. Sometimes a million “pretties” and “smarts” can’t turn that around.

So, step one: tell your girls that they are they ONLY architects of their own selves. THEY decide who they are, not some “mean girl” on the soccer team, not a boy who’s crushing on them, not a dear friend or a sworn enemy—not even Mom or Dad.

Tell those girls that THEY are the ones who get to decide if they’re pretty or not, or great athletes or not, or artists, or brainiacs, or kind, or mean, or brave, or afraid, great or bad cooks or dancers, or weird, or normal. What THEY call themselves is what they are. End of story.

I wish somebody had said that to me.

Not just to ignore the negative things people say about me, but to REALIZE and BELIEVE that whatever they say is meaningless, because only I can really KNOW and DECIDE what I am and what I am not.

At the heart of every mean girl is a scared girl, an insecure girl, or a confused girl—but just another girl with whom they have more in common than not.

Now that way of thinking may be a little esoteric for a child, but Mama Bear, it is worth a try to just say it to them anyway. You should start training your girls now to apply their own values to their own attributes because that will make it less likely that a classmate—or worse, a romantic partner—might do it for them someday. Just keeping the future in mind here, Mama Bear.

And the corollary to the importance of developing the power of self-definition is having the courage not to pigeon-hole your childhood oppressors; as you said so eloquently in your letter, not to label them as “bullies.” No kid needs that label while she is still young enough to change.

I agree with you, Mama Bear: take it out of the lexicon altogether. Be sure to explain to your girls that even though a girl may be acting like all the bad words they can think of, that there is still a kernel of good inside of every seeming-jerk, and that maybe it’s possible to tease it out.

Tell your daughters that at the heart of every mean girl is a scared girl, an insecure girl, or a confused girl—but more importantly, just another girl with whom they have more in common than not.

But when you are finished having this talk with your own brood, Mama Bear, here is another thing that I would urge you to do.

Organize, Mama Bear. Organize and educate.

Since you are already volunteering at your daughters’ schools and activities, I say you should get together a small group of like-minded parents and start a workshop for girls.

Now Mama Bear, don’t go and do this yourself because your girls will be mortified. It has to be a collective. You have to recruit other moms (and dads) of your children’s peers who also want to address this problem. I don’t think this should be too hard since, if you are seeing this stuff going on and are concerned, probably a lot of other parents are too. Like you, they just aren’t sure what to do about it.

Have a meeting with these parents, Mama Bear. Stay away from blaming and naming the kids you may or may not know to be the perpetrators. Keep it constructive. Brainstorm ways you can address the problem, and push kindness, cooperation, and civility onto your kids.

There is no such thing as ‘mean girls.’ There are just girls trying to assert their power in the wrong way. As women, we have to stop bonding with some women over our mutual hatred of other women.

We shouldn’t be punishing “mean girls” here. There is no such thing. There are just girls trying to assert their power in the wrong way. We should be focusing on the rewards and benefits of girls supporting girls.

Feminism, Mama Bear! Feminism is what it is, but you don’t have to call it that. Maybe, “Mama Bear’s Super Girl Power Club” or something like that.

Bring in lecturers, Mama Bear, to talk about how stupid it is to tear down your peers. Read books together about teams or groups of girls who worked together to do amazing things. Show movies about famous female duos and trios who had strong, positive, life-enhancing friendships. Play them Sleater-Kinney, Mama Bear, play them Bikini Kill.

And of course you can’t forget the huge effect on your children that you have just by being who YOU and are and doing what YOU do. Do you model healthy female friendships for them? Do you refrain from making negative comments about the appearance of other women?

That’s a big one, Mama Bear; one that I struggle with myself because I love to make fun of people’s hairstyles and clothes, but I shouldn’t. That kind of talk is a vestige of that old, schoolyard lizard brain, and if we want the kids around us to rise above, we’re going to have to rise above too.

As women, we have to stop bonding with some women over our mutual hatred of other women. Do you know what I mean, Mama Bear? We have all done it and it sucks. It’s such a natural instinct to love the enemies of our enemies, but we have to start finding a better way to relate to our fellow women.

Tell your girls that too: “Don’t be buddying up with somebody by talking about how ‘so-and-so’s a real spazz.’ Try to look for something else you all have in common and talk about that instead.”

So there are the three things I recommend.

One: empower your girls so that they’re not depending on some outside source to define who they are.

Two: organize some club, workshop, class, or meeting that will address this issue and introduce the girls in your community to the Joys of Feminism.

Three: model fellow-female-friendly behavior for your girls as much as you can.

We all want to stop the cruelty in the world, Mama Bear, and any attempt you make toward lessening the violent speech and behavior in your community will be valiant. Any effect you have will send out ripples of harmony into the world and create goodness and healing in places where you might have never expected.

Please do it, Mama Bear. Please take this responsibility seriously. The awkward, 13-year-old me would be very happy and very relieved if you do.

Shannon McGill is your guide on mannerly behavior of all sorts. Credit: David Cimetta.

Shannon McGill is your guide on mannerly behavior of all sorts. Credit: David Cimetta.

And one more thing: I just want to say that all the most interesting, funny, intelligent, and kind people I know were once targets of some kind of bullying, abuse, or harassment. Even if nothing changes, your babies will still be okay.

In some vineyards, the farmers intentionally stress their grapevines because it makes the fruit deeper, more robust, and complex—better wine, Mama Bear, is what I’m getting at. Don’t forget that a little static in a child’s life does the same thing. Some stress, some adversity is not necessarily a bad thing.

Learning to deal with other people’s—ahem—difficult personalities is a talent that should never be underestimated. Also, learning to protect and separate oneself from the abuse of another is another skill that comes in handy in all sorts of later-in-life situations.

So take heart, Mama Bear. We’re going to do this together.

We are going to turn “nice girls” into strong girls and “mean girls” into our sisters.

We are going to teach girls to honor, respect, and love each other instead of tearing one another down.

We are going to show how productive and how wonderful female friendships and partnerships can be.

When we hear women tearing down other women, we’re going to be voices of reason and empathy instead of hatred and judgment.

When we see girls affected by the hurtful words of other girls, we are going to try to reverse those effects with supportive speech and actions.

I’m getting excited just talking about it, Mama Bear. I’m really glad you wrote me this letter, and I have every confidence that your daughters are going to be leading the pack toward worldwide sisterhood.

You got a problem? Yo, she’ll solve it. Send your imponderable quandaries to mcgillagrams@gmail.com.

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