BUSY IN BRISTOW: Mean Girls

busyinbristow-1Last night, a few of us moms who have tweens were lamenting that middle school is only one year away for our little darlings.

“I know,” I said. “My oldest son is in 7th grade, and he answers me in monosyllabic grunts … when he answers me.”

“My daughter’s already dealing with mean girls, and they’re still in 4th grade,” my friend said. “The other day they were all making fun of her because she still likes to play pretend … create fantasy worlds with her dolls and figurines.”

Ah – the mean girls. I remember them, and even though we tend to insist that our kids are growing up faster than we did, I recall 4th grade as the year I had my first negative experiences in school – all due to insecure mean girls and their followers-boys they enticed onto the bandwagon.

My 4th grade daughter is so far from being a mean girl that she doesn’t even recognize the gleam in some of the girls’ eyes when they’ve started to gossip all around her. This becomes a sticky situation for me because I’m friends with some of the other mothers whose daughters are, at least on some occasions, going over to the Dark Side; and the mothers don’t seem to be aware of their tweens’ treachery.

We all go through – and likely participate in – a certain amount of ribbing, teasing, and torment. The bullies, after all, are probably being bullied by someone else who’s higher on the food chain than they are.

At school now, the students actually get lessons that clarify bullying isn’t an isolated unkind word. Rather, according to the stopbullying.gov website, bullying is, “unwanted, aggressive behavior that … involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is … repeated over time.”

I guess adults finally realized that if every isolated case of a kid getting picked on was reported there would be hundreds to follow up on … every hour.

So what can we, as parents, do about the Mean Girl syndrome without pulling our impressionable young ones out of school and putting them in a proverbial bubble?

As always, the first thing that comes to my mind is modeling the behavior we want from our kids. Am I inclusive? Kind? Do I speak well of people and handle differences of opinion with them directly rather than cursing them behind their backs?

In high school and college, I was The Welcome Wagon. New kids loved me because they never sat alone long in the cafeteria before I walked over and invited them to sit with me and my friends. In college, I met a few too many hangers-on this way, so I learned to refine my social skills, but I’m still on the lookout for wall-flower women who may be new to the community or just too shy to walk up to someone they don’t know and strike up a conversation.

Admittedly, in college I cultivated my unkind side. I became best friends with a girl who was highly ironic, loved all things satire, and who appealed to my caricature-prone funny-bone. I suppose we were late-blooming mean girls for a while, living in our exclusive world created by a whole host of inside jokes aimed, mainly, at the expense of other people.

That lasted for about a year and a half until I transferred to another college and didn’t have time to make fun of other people because the coursework was so much more difficult. Sadly, however, it took years for me to get back my good-girl vibe. Although I laughed less frequently at others, I was also entirely egocentric. Sure, I participated in some fundraising efforts through my sorority, but it wasn’t until I grew up and became a teacher that I really started looking outside of my own experience and asking myself how I could be of service.

These days, my mantra is, “be kind.” Kindness, as Jewell sang years ago, is the only thing that matters in the end.

What made me change my priorities? Well – growing up, for sure, but also losing friends, family members, and co-workers along the way – many of them to cancer.

That, of course, and having kids. I want to raise kind kids, and that means I have to be kind to them and others.

Inclusiveness and kindness are easy compared to directly confronting someone who has hurt us or with whom we disagree. The temptation to talk about her behind her back is strong.

Most of us fear confrontation. We don’t want it to go badly, causing further pain or embarrassment. We think if we nurse our daily wounds, secretly, we can get over them, and sometimes we can.

When there’s a pattern of bad behavior, however, — be it ours or someone else’s – it’s better to either accept it without judgment or address it and hope for the best.

I think this last point is probably where the mean girls get meaner. After all, you can’t include someone you’re angry at, and you can’t be genuinely kind to someone who has hurt you that you haven’t forgiven.

If you do include her and you are nice to her, but you’re still holding onto some real or imagined hurt, that’s what we call hypocrisy, right?

Maybe I’m wrong, and that’s just politeness.

I was born a Jersey girl and moved to Southern Virginia at age 7, so for the first few years of my life, I was surrounded by directness – no feelings spared up North when honesty was at stake –and for the next 10 years, gentle Southerners gave me sideways glances when they disapproved of something so I always had the feeling I was one step behind Truth.

It’s not easy to teach our children how to deal with the arrows that mean girls (and boys) shoot their way, and it’s even harder when we discover it’s our children who are the ones taking aim. When we tell them – in our own embarrassment – that they “shouldn’t do this” or “shouldn’t say that because it’s mean,” we shame them, and that’s no improvement over excusing their bad behavior.

More than once, I’ve felt the hot flush of shame as it’s crept into my cheeks after finding out one of my children said or did something unkind or unmannerly. It is human nature to play Hot Potato with it – toss it their way as quickly as possible.

I do not think this is kind to them, nor is it wise.

As much as I want to avoid my own daughters becoming victims of mean girls or mean girls themselves, I am also wary of becoming a Mean Mom. As a Type-A mom/teacher who dislikes having my authority ignored or worse yet, challenged, I have struggled with this over the years.

There is one thing I’ve found more effective than trying to be perfect:  a good old-fashioned apology.

When it follows on the heals of a Mean Mom moment, it’s a gift to both of us.

But do you know the best feeling in the world? Being forgiven by your very wise child while she hugs you and says soothingly in your ear, “It’s ok, Mom, we all make mistakes.”

© 2015, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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