Saturday, August 20, 2011

Handling Mean Girls And The "Cool" Kids

At age 4 1/2 my daughter was caught off
guard by "mean girl" behavior. 
As a parent, one of the roles we often throw ourselves into with the most fervor is protector of our children. From the moment we find out we're pregnant, the concern for their welfare begins. We watch what we eat, we try to avoid stress, we set up a non-toxic nursery. We worry about air purification and second-hand smoke, we go out of our way to provide wooden toys and BPA-free bottles. 

As our children get older we may make our own baby food from organic fruits and vegetables, we help them learn to take turns at play dates, teach them to sleep through the night and eventually have a smooth transition to preschool. But somewhere along the way our children's needs get more complex and we, as parents, may feel less sure of our ability to protect them from what might hurt them. 

Mean Girls In Preschool?
Last week my daughter was particularly moody both at home and, according to her counselors, at camp as well. She's often moody so, until her counselors told me she had been crying at camp, I didn't think anything was out of the ordinary. At night, before bed, the kids and I spend some time talking about the "ups and downs" of the day. Our daughter's daily down moments usually are along the lines of "I didn't have camp today" or "I didn't get to go swimming". 

But this week, in the dark safety of her room, I heard her small voice quietly say "my down is that Shelly* told me she wasn't my friend". Then a little later: "Nancy* (all names have been changed) told me she wouldn't play with me anymore" and "Justina* pushed me and I fell down". When did 4 1/2 year olds start being "mean girls"?

Who could be mean to this sweet child?
Let me start by saying that I love the camp my kids go to. I sing its praises daily. And my kids have loved it for the past 2 months. I know that the fact that camp runs in 2 week increments means each new session means old friends may leave and new friends may enter. Sometimes children of this age (especially girls) are beginning to experiment with the power that comes along with social exclusion. That seems to be the case this session. 

The counselors have been working on the issue and have said that I'm not the only one to complain which, I guess makes me happy (?) that my daughter is not being singled out. But I wonder why this is happening and more importantly, I am trying to figure out how i can help.

Are the new girls trying to jockey for position and fit in? Perhaps. My daughter has a big personality when she feels comfortable and other kids tend to follow her lead. Maybe the new girls are used to being in that role and thus, don't know where they fit in. Maybe my daughter's cheery personality and closeness with the counselors makes the new girls feel insecure? Maybe these other girls haven't yet learned how to be a good friend to someone else or how to express themselves when they are feeling bad about something. Whatever the case may be, my daughter was left sitting at breakfast each morning last week complaining that her tummy hurt and not wanting to go to a camp that she loved only days before.

Off to camp with his face painted.
Not worrying at all what anyone thinks.
Boys Do It Too. Just In Different Ways.
At around the same time I noticed a similar behavior from our son. He had been very excited about his best friend from school joining the camp for this last session. Our son idolizes this boy, Ian* (again, not his real name), and the only issue it has brought up before is that Ian watches a lot of television and talks about superheros, villains and movies that we are not comfortable with our kids having access to yet. 

However, I have noticed lately that our son is so concerned with Ian's definition of what is "cool" that he is unwilling to wear anything Ian might not like or do anything which Ian might think is silly. He's started resisting being involved in activities he otherwise would love to participate in for fear of not fitting in. I asked if Ian has ever told him that he's not "cool" and he said no, but then said that Ian says it about other kids and he's worried he'll say it about him, too. *sigh*

So What Are Parents Supposed To Do?
  1. Be The Safe Grownup. The most important thing for parents to do is to be the type of parent a child can talk to. When they tell you something happened, don't dismiss it or gloss over it. Conversely, don't freak out over it, or put words in your child's mouth about the experience either. When a child tells you something happened, simply say, "Really? How did you feel about that?", "Can you tell me more about what happened?" Being calm and receptive will allow your children to feel safe reporting to you. Before deciding how you will handle what they tell you, discuss it with your child. They may have fears and reservations about that as well.
  2. Talk About The Bad Stuff, Too. When you ask children about their day, after hearing all the fun stuff, ask them to tell you about the bad things that happened, too. This allows children to know that it's ok to speak about yucky stuff and that it's normal to have not so nice things happen. It also helps you know what is going on in their world. As I mentioned, we talk about the "ups and downs" of our day before bed and I share my own ups and downs with them as well. Knowing that mommy or daddy has bad things happen and hearing how you handle them is very encouraging for a child.
  3. Don't Fight Their Battles For Them. It's important that children feel they have adult protectors, but they must also feel empowered that they can stand up for themselves. Teach your children that the first step is to tell someone who is hurting their body or their feelings: "Stop it! I don't like that!". If that fails to stop the behavior, teach them to then find an adult they trust and ask for help and tell your child to KEEP telling until you find a grownup who helps
  4. Model Compassion And Kindness. If possible, help your child understand what the child who has hurt them might be experiencing. When we had a "bully" at school during their first year, we talked about all the reasons why this boy was acting out. We stressed the importance of showing kindness towards others. We also talked about the fact that sometimes when someone is being mean or unkind it's because they feel bad about themselves, or they haven't yet learned how to be a good friend. It helped our kids see this boy as a whole person, not simply a bully. And when his behavior ultimately changed, he was not ostracized, but simply accepted back into the fold.
I had heard this behavior sometimes happens as early as preschool. I guess I buried my head in the sand a bit because our preschool is so amazing and I can't imagine this behavior ever happening there. 
< But perhaps camp is the real world and this stuff happens in the real world. It's hard, as their mom, to hear that anyone has made them feel sad. I'll be honest, I cried a bit about it all. I know it's not the worst thing they'll ever face and I suppose it's a good lesson in learning how to stand up for themselves. Its probably a good lesson for me, too. Mommy can't always be there...some day my babies have to leave the nest and I need to make sure they're ready for it. I'd just like a little more time to prepare them. 
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