The day before my self-assured daughter’s sixth birthday, one of her classmates—surrounded by supporters—informed her that she was going to wreck her party, wreck our house and then break all of the bones in my child’s body during gym class. When the other kindergarten moms heard about this, they were shocked. How could this happen in our nurturing little suburban elementary school? Our boys seem to run together in packs like happy puppy dogs, while our girls seem to be in competition like territorial alley cats.
“For boys, the levels they attain in sports are a measure of their power and importance,” says Michelle Anthony, MA, PhD, author of Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades. “The ways girls define themselves in the elementary-school years is in terms of their relationships and their power in their relationships. Their social job is to make a friend, keep a friend, be a friend and be important to a friend. As they try to accomplish these goals, their actions sometimes inadvertently turn out mean. Every girl can be mean. Because all girls want to be part of a social network.”
Girls may use meanness to cope, according to Joan Rosenberg, PhD, co-author of Mean Girls, Meaner Women: Understanding Why Women Backstab, Betray and Trash-Talk Each Other and How to Heal (meangirlsmeanerwomen.com). Her co-author, Erica Holiday, PsyD, says, “In our society, girls are expected to be strong yet demure and passive. They’re not being taught how to deal with these confusing messages. So instead of their taking it out on each other, their feelings need to be validated by the adults in their lives. We need to help them learn how to identify and manage their feelings and express them in a real way.”
It’s not surprising that girls handle social things differently than boys, as research shows that their brains are actually different. The part that enables the transfer of information from the right hemisphere (which holds emotion) to the left (which controls language) is 25 percent larger in girls. “That explains why women are so good at multitasking. But it also explains the female tendency to ruminate, dwell on and hold onto things. This is where girls can learn from boys to feel, express and then let go,” says Dr. Holiday. Here are some ways we can teach our kids to be important and powerful without being hurtful.
Encourage passion. “We’ve got to help our kids develop passions and pursue their interests, so they can be successful and focused on what they enjoy,” says Randi Shafton, co-founder of Girl360.net, a website that offers stories about girls doing amazing things. Doing something they love makes them feel more powerful and can distract them from meanness.
Validate strength. Girls can be pretty and smart. But they still may grow up learning stereotypes such as women who act feminine are considered ineffective or incompetent but women who act assertive are seen as masculine. All kids need to learn that the traditionally “male” traits that are considered healthy—being assertive, confident, strong, independent, ambitious, adventurous and competitive—are absolutely appropriate and valid for both genders. And that having them doesn’t necessarily make you “masculine.”
Celebrate uniqueness and individuality. Find diversity, balance and interests outside of school. Expose girls to different groups and a variety of cultures so they develop compassion and empathy. Young girls are most vulnerable when their small world is their entire lives. If they have outside interests and a broader circle of friends, difficult social situations don’t seem so overwhelming.
“Set limits for a bully,” says Shafton. She shares Eleanor Roosevelt’s insight: “No one can make you feel inferior except yourself,” and adds, “girls need to learn how to say no in the face of opposition.” Encourage your child to stand up for herself, stay away from bullies and tune out put-downs.
Respond appropriately to bullying behavior. If you child is the bully, she needs to learn from consequences like social restrictions and removal of privileges. She needs to make amends to her victim. Then she needs to seriously work on self-reflection, compassion, empathy and kindness.
Encourage reconciliation instead of retribution. Help your child learn that acceptance, forgiveness and trust go a lot farther than intolerance, judgment and punishment. Moms need to model compassionate behavior, help kids choose the right relationships and encourage them to make the right choices. There’s nothing wrong with being cool, but cool kids who are bullies are just not good friends.
Limit social media. “When we were young, a mean note was passed around, but you could rip up that note. If a kid posts something cruel on Facebook, it may cast a very wide and far-reaching net. So discuss social-media responsibility often, and put time and content limits in place. Then keep an eye out for inappropriate media behavior.
Encourage more face-to-face. Kids need to connect in person, not just online. Our brains grow through social connection, so kids need to learn to be with each other safely and comfortably. At the same time, discuss with your daughter the benefit of cultivating several friendships. Being overly dependent on or placing all her trust in just one person can be socially and emotionally limiting. What happens when that one special kid isn’t there?
Never stop communicating. Young girls are ready for guidance before adolescence—that’s our window to help them. You’re in a perfect position to understand your child and work together as a team so she’s less overwhelmed and can more appropriately deal with situations in the future. You can’t say too often: “I’m here for you and you can always come to me to talk.” Then take what she says seriously and act on it.
Update: My daughter was a bit concerned when she found out that the mean girl from kindergarten was in her fourth-grade class. To her surprise, about a month into the term, the other girl asked my daughter if she remembered when she was mean to her in kindergarten. The girl went on to say that she was sorry because my daughter is so nice. Sometimes it’s good that girls have brains that don’t forget much—especially when it leads to apologies and forgiveness.
Activities to Promote Kindness
Meet Bob Votruba, who visits schools around the country on a mission to inspire kindness, and read his age-by-age tips.
With every question answered, 10 grains of rice will be donated to hungry people around the world.
Click on “Children” to find things kids can do to help others.
Encourage kids to be responsible global citizens from the start.