Shocked? Dismayed? Aghast? I certainly was when the Principal of a local middle school opened his welcome speech to parents of new 6th grade students with this statement. He attributed most of the problems in middle school to girl cliques. Boys can be mean, too, he said, but the emotional manipulation that drives girl cliques not only creates serious issues between girls themselves and between girls and boys, but also pits boys against other boys. This was two years ago. I shook my head and filed it away for future research.
Unfortunately, I had to dig it up again within a few months when my sensitive then-3rd grader spent half hour crying her eyes out every day on her return from school. Yes, girls are mean and they start very young. It is easy to deal with in-your-face bullying but it’s not always easy to deal with subtle and sophisticated signals that are sent out by girl cliques. The movie, Mean Girls, may have been about girl cliques in high schools, but take it from me that girls encounter them much earlier – in the first few years of being in elementary school.
It starts small: through loose cliques, deliberate exclusions and a lot of hurt feelings. Some children make it unscathed because they are oblivious to the games being played by their friends. Sensitive children, on the other hand, bear the hardest brunt of this phenomenon; largely because they are sitting ducks for emerging Queen Bees as they hone their skills.
Queen Bee? Yes! The term is no longer just used to describe the clichéd over-aggressive soccer Mom but it is also used to describe one of the roles that a child may assume in a clique. According to Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, there are seven roles that a girl may assume. These roles are not set in stone and one girl may lose her position to another as they play mind games with one another. As a parent, it helps to examine these seven roles to get a basic understanding of how to deal with the emotional baggage that starts accumulating and slowly chipping away at the self-esteem of your child.
The Queen Bee: Through a combination of charisma, force, money, looks, will and manipulation, this girl reigns supreme over the other girls and weakens their friendships with others, thereby strengthening her own power and influence.
The Side Kick: She notices everything about the Queen Bee, because she wants to be her. She will do everything the Queen Bee says. The Queen Bee, as her best friend, makes her feel popular and included.
The Floater: She has friends in different groups and can move freely among them. She has influence over other girls but doesn't use it to make them feel bad.
The Torn Bystander: She's constantly conflicted about doing the right thing and her allegiance to the clique. As a result, she's the one most likely to be caught in the middle of a conflict between two girls or two groups of girls.
The Pleaser/Wannabe/Messenger: She will do anything to be in the good graces of the Queen Bee and the Sidekick. When two powerful girls, or two powerful groups of girls, are in a fight, she is the go-between. However, the other girls eventually turn on her as well. She'll enthusiastically back them up no matter what. She can't tell the difference between what she wants and what the group wants.
The Banker: Girls trust her when she pumps them for information because it doesn't seem like gossip; instead, she does it in an innocent, "I'm trying to be your friend" way. This is the girl who sneaks under adult radar all the time because she can appear so cute and harmless.
The Target: She's the victim, set up by the other girls to be humiliated, made fun of, excluded. She can be part of a clique or outside the clique. Either way, she feels isolated and alone.
I found this list both daunting and depressing, especially when used to describe elementary school kids. I then chanced upon an article on Scholastic's web site called Coping with Cliques by Ann Matturro Gault. She writes:
Research conducted by professors John Coie of Duke University and Ken Dodge at Vanderbilt University established five types of kids: popular, accepted, rejected, controversial, and neglected. Although these distinctions begin to emerge in 3rd grade, they really take hold in 4th:
Popular kids are socially skilled, academically strong, and well rounded. Everyone wants to be their friend.
Accepted kids are where the majority of children fit in. They are liked by their peers and do well academically.
Rejected children are openly disliked and tend to be aggressive. They lack social skills and often have academic and family problems (e.g. divorce, alcoholism, and depression). School bullies come from this group.
Controversial kids are liked by some but intensely disliked by others. They bring out divisiveness. As adolescents they engage in risky behavior — girls tend to be sexually active earlier; boys get into trouble with vandalism and truancy.
Neglected kids aren't liked or disliked. They fade into the background and have little social impact. They are, in a sense, invisible. Kids in this category tend to be academically high-achieving, but socially withdrawn. The more socially skilled have one or two friends, but are just as likely to be loners.
Where, in this matrix, did my child fit in? I had to figure out how an amiable and congenial little girl could suddenly be reduced to an inconsolable heap of tears. Was I in denial? That perhaps my child was not as proficient as I thought she was when it came to social skills? That she might be provoking the kind of behavior that made her feel excluded and neglected? I had to find out.
I talked with as many parents as I could. All of them resorted to marching into the Principal’s office to scream "bullying." In some of the cases, it stopped but in most cases, it resulted in more exclusion. It also did not help prepare the child to deal with more of the same behavior. I knew then that I had to approach this from another angle especially since I knew that the maturity level of my own child went from truly naïve to extremely logical, depending on the situation. I think it is also important to state that she was not being physically harmed. Her self-esteem and self-confidence, however, had dipped to an abysmal low.
While I could not ride the bus to observe children's behavior en route to school and back, I volunteered as a chaperone on just about every field trip where I rode the bus or I drove about five children to the destination. In addition to this, I volunteered in the school so that I could watch and experience the dynamics at play within the classroom and especially on the playground. My research was rather unscientific and I was very careful to play the role of an unbiased observer, difficult as it was.
This confirmed several things: I knew my child as well as I thought I did and that I was not in denial. It also told me that if we worked on building her self-esteem and her self-confidence back to where it was by focusing on her strengths and recognizing her weaknesses, she would be back to her normal springy humorous and happy self.
The first thing we did, as a family, was to reiterate that she was loved for who she was. That was all we did for weeks until she was ready to absorb more inputs. Then, we focused on her strengths. She reveled in this extra attention and started excelling academically, which is where her strengths lie. Her teachers started noticing her ability to think clearly and reason logically, and began challenging her in the classroom whenever they could. Soon, she was in demand as a project partner or elected to be the leader for a group project. There was new respect for her in the classroom but the problems on the playground and in the school bus persisted. However, the difference was that we were better equipped to deal with them now.
We impressed upon her that she had to make different choices when it came to the playground. So, instead of trying to do what the other kids did, she focused on what she enjoyed and wanted to get better at. She chose to take her jump rope to school and started practicing her jump rope moves by herself. It upset me to learn that she was playing alone but it was heartening to know that she was not staying in at recess. Soon, she had several other girls jumping rope with her. They had good-natured competitions and slowly, the jump rope games morphed into other games on the playground. She extrapolated this experience to the ride home on the school bus and it, too, became a non-issue. By the end of 3rd Grade, she had carved a niche for herself and she was far more comfortable with who she was and where she wanted to be. The mean girls did not matter anymore.
This is not to say that everything is perfect and hunky-dory now but things are a lot better. She has learned that she cannot change or control other kids' behavior but she can control her own responses. She walks away to protect herself from getting hurt. Other times, she confronts the other girls with what she thinks they are trying to do. It does not always go down well but they leave her alone. A curious fallout of this is that her 'services' are now frequently sought as an arbitrator in playground quarrels because of her ability to reason and be fair. She also knows her bounds and mitigates volatile situations by handing them over to the teacher-in-charge.
She has always been 'different' – in temperament, intellectual ability, ethnicity, and she is also strongly influenced by our values at home that, in many cases, are diametrically opposite to that of the community we live in. She now perceives all this as her strengths instead of something that sets her apart. With improved self-esteem and self-confidence, she is better equipped to deal with the meanness that seems to emanate spontaneously from other girls.
This is our story. Our methods may not work for everyone, as every child is unique as are their particular situations. The bottom-line though is that girls are indeed mean. What has worked for us consistently is keeping the communication channels open at all times. We encourage our child to confide in us. We do not talk down to her; instead we talk to her and discuss her feelings, whatever they may be. We focus on her strengths, acknowledge her weaknesses, and work toward all-round character development. She knows she has a strong support system at home and that helps her get through her day in the world outside. She is also her happy self again.
Have you had a similar experience? Do you have thoughts to share about girl cliques? I would love to hear from other parents with insights on how to deal effectively with meanness on the playground and in school.
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