Girls are Mean

Friday, January 11, 2008

Posted by Indian Food Rocks

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Are you interested in contributing to The Daily Tiffin? Drop us an email: We look forward to hearing your ideas.

This Post was written by Manisha of Indian Food Rocks.


did you say Bee? it's great to see you here.

bee said...
January 11, 2008 at 7:35:00 PM GMT+1  

Manisha, this is a piece I will have to print out and stick into my file for future reference. It raised some great points and I find the way you as a family handled the situation very remarkable. Kudos. Although I have a boy, there are still times when he asks questions about such topics (and he is only in pre-school) With this post I think I can tackle those questions more clearly and aid him to deal with such situations.

Thanks - I'd love to give you a big hug for this!

Meeta K. Wolff said...
January 11, 2008 at 8:10:00 PM GMT+1  

Hi Manisha, Really brave of you to speak out like that. I could have cried reading it and though I don't have the experience with girls I've had it with boys. Starting in the very first year of schooling (just out of nursery) with my son being bullied by a boy only one year older. It culminated with him being kicked in the face, splitting his lip, after weeks of bullying that I did nothing about because I wrongly thought that he couldn't possibly be being bullied at that age. He too is a very sensitive child, and was overly caring about everybody else's feelings but his own. We moved and this meant he moved schools. He does seem like a natural target but like you we're trying to make sure that he has the confidence to deal with these situations and still do the right thing. Also now he has a younger brother with a very different personality who wont stand for any messing around. They're good for each other, learning from each others personalities.

Sounds like you've done a great joob with your daughter and I have to say that what you've said is talked about a lot in England too. I don't understand why but I do know that I've thought many times about home schooling!
Take care

January 11, 2008 at 8:17:00 PM GMT+1  

bee, sure I did! But the difference is you are The Bee. ;-)

Amy, thank you! I feel for you and what you went through. I must admit that I had to dig into my own childhood experiences to be able to relate to what my own child was going through. She had a look of "you mean you understand?" on her face when I shared it with her.

Meeta, hugs back at you! You are raising a very precocious little boy! It's an ongoing process as relationships are very fluid, especially at a young age. I have found that working with my child, rather than complain about other children, has made her stronger and more assertive in how she responds to situations. Depending on the nature of the situation, we do step in to rescue her.

Amanda, it's a tough world out there, much tougher than when we were children as the stresses and external stimuli are different. Unlike girls, boys have to deal with more physical bullying and that is very scary. I am so glad that you, too, think that building self-confidence and teaching them to make the right choices is one of the paths to take.

Moving was an option we considered but we were not serious about as we had only recently moved. We did consider open-enrolling her in a school that is not a neighborhood school, as that is something that is allowed in our school district. But there was no guarantee that we would not encounter a similar situation. We were surprised when the greatest resistance to this idea came from her. I think she was done moving and being the 'new kid.'

I, too, thought long and hard about home schooling but there were several reasons for not doing so: my daughter thrives on social interaction with her peers and her teachers; and, I am not as disciplined as I would like to be, in order to home school.

January 11, 2008 at 10:02:00 PM GMT+1  


Excellent peice of writitng, not just girls but as a mom of a first grader(boy) he goes through phases oI have 100 friends to I have no friends. What I realized is pick few kids that your kid likes and you approve of, have play dates out of school, as these kids see each other often outside of school they become good buddies and I feel safe that he is in a safe company. Its a lot of work with play dates and all , but at the end it will benefit.

More then the kid I go thru emotional roller coaster when they are bullied or come crying from school.

Sreelu said...
January 11, 2008 at 10:35:00 PM GMT+1  

What an outstanding article. Very well researched--I know this will be an invaluable resource to many.

Amanda said...
January 12, 2008 at 1:16:00 AM GMT+1  

Very well written post..

I have a pre-schooler and till now I have not had this experience...

But I guess the child resorts to being mean either because he/she has problems with themself and takes this as a means of venting their frustaration out or it could also be because they get their own way out with anything and everything..

I have a niece who was denied an acceptance into a clique just because she wore glasses and was plump. This damaged her self-esteem to a great extent because she was confused between being adored by everyone within the family and not being accepted by her peers.

She soon realized that there was much more that she could enjoy than getting into the group. She learnt to ignore their taunts..But all this took a lot of time and patience and now she is the head girl of the junior school!

I like the way you handled the situation as a family..great job..

Rachel said...
January 12, 2008 at 5:42:00 AM GMT+1  

Well, I am not a parent but I am a former child...and could not help wondering if I ever fit into those "seven roles" (each sounds more horrid than the next!). I guess I may have been one of the lucky "accepted kids" because I don't remember anyone being mean to me and I sure as hell hope I was not mean to anyone.
So nice to see you here at DT, Manisha :)

Nupur said...
January 12, 2008 at 12:36:00 PM GMT+1  

Sreelu, it's tough to remain unbiased when your child is hurting. It's a good trait to learn because it helps you help your child better. It also allows you to talk to other parents and teachers with a clear head.

Mrs. W, thank you!

Rachel, thanks! Your niece did a great job! Kudos to her! Self-confidence is the key.

Nupur, that explains your happy disposition as an adult! :-) As you say, you may have been one of those kids who was always accepted. As I look back on my own experiences, I can fit several of the girls who bullied me into those categories. I would love to meet them again and find out what became of them.

January 12, 2008 at 9:34:00 PM GMT+1  

Well, they just need more time to develop into perfect ladies, which they will. Perhaps the Principal should put Emily Post's "Etiquette" on the curriculum?


Unknown said...
January 12, 2008 at 10:48:00 PM GMT+1  

Your description of these girl cliques is so true! I took me back to school days.....Kids can be really mean sometimes. And they can be mean not just to the victims, but also say rude things about their family etc. This meanness can also be rooted in jealousy when a kid performs well, academics or extracurriculars.

Hugs to you, dear! You rock as a parent! Thanks for writing such a marvellous piece.

musical said...
January 13, 2008 at 3:32:00 AM GMT+1  

Manisha..This post touched me.Keep writing.

January 13, 2008 at 11:18:00 PM GMT+1  

lovely post ! very well written !

Krithika said...
January 14, 2008 at 2:10:00 AM GMT+1  

This post looks like something I saw through out my college days and then in my job. Hurts big time to even read about it. Sometimes I feel the same has come to blogging also.

I have been thinking about this whole scenario ever since I saw Taare Zameen Par. I love the way you have handled the situation.

Very well written post Manisha.

Shilpa said...
January 14, 2008 at 6:00:00 PM GMT+1  

This is such a well researched post Manisha, let me first congratulate you for putting this things down with such clarity in toughts. no wonder tht your princess is clear in her visio and ideas.
We are not parent, but i cna tell you whatever you wrote in here is true for any kid. I cant judge where should i put myselfi nthose seven categories, but i felt it many times as a kid that even though I always had a very good academic record and ranks, on play ground and other places i was feeling quite outsider. it was the after the age of 7 or 8 , I started analyzing myself and mom taught me how precious and different i am than others, be it true or not , it helped me a lot to be what I am today. I have a very good memories and i stil lcan visualize those days as just it happened yesterday.
Thanks for the post Manisha.
Hope to see you more on DT .

Pooja said...
January 15, 2008 at 9:04:00 PM GMT+1  

Great post Manisha; I also found myself comparing all of this to my own memories of years in school- certain things do stay vivid! I, too, was bullied for a short period, but then found my niche just by doing and pursuing things I enjoyed- I actually enjoyed my last years of high school as a controversial floater very much! :-D I really must commend the way you handled your daughter's issues- that support at home is so important, and she'll remember it one day.

Pelicano said...
January 16, 2008 at 5:44:00 AM GMT+1  

Ed the Gent, I will look that up, thanks! They do have a program that speaks out against bullying and teaches children how to stand up for themselves. I have my doubts about how effective it is but at least there is a certain degree of awareness.

Musical, school days, college days, hostel days, and adult relationships, too. Thanks!

Shankari, Krithika, thank you!

Shilpa, get hold of Wiseman's book. She makes so much sense! She works in schools and has insights from 'within the ranks' so to speak. Perhaps it might help you resolve this with yourself.

I just got hold of TZP and am looking forward to seeing it!

Pooja, so now you know why 'Girls are Mean!'

Pel, it's hard to shake off some things. I can imagine just the kind of controversial floater you must have been! Thanks!

January 16, 2008 at 8:25:00 AM GMT+1  

If you can beleive me, my 5 yo had already experienced meanness when she was in daycare--- from a fellow 3-year-old!
Got to daycare one time, Mary was crying and there and then, was telling me how this one kid is mean to her. PRior to this, she had already told me about similar instances and my advise to her was to stop playing with that kid. This time, I talked with the daycare director and they were having a lot of problems with that kid.
And you know what? I have met the mother and I could understand where the kid's meanness was coming from.
Anyway, I had the teachers make sure that Mary do not play with the kid anymore.
And of course, now, she has started kindergarten and had switched schools.

Anonymous said...
January 16, 2008 at 4:06:00 PM GMT+1  

Congrats on your post - empathetic and well researched.
Your daughter will always appreciate you being there for her and making her feel supported enough to turnaround the situation.

I remember reading a quote a long time back "Fill the bucket of self esteem of your child so high, that when the whole world punches a hole in it, it won't run dry"

Miri said...
January 17, 2008 at 1:15:00 PM GMT+1  

The value in your piece was that you took positive action as a mother and as a family. As a parent, I too worry about the social strains on my child in the school setting, but like your daughter, my son also thrives on the social interaction he receives from being able to interact with his classmates everyday.

I think setting up playdates is a great idea which we also incorporate. This helps to strengthen friendships with children who you as a parent know are fun and positive and great influences on your child.

I love the quote from Miri about a child's self esteem.

Thank you all for sharing.

Yvette said...
January 17, 2008 at 7:10:00 PM GMT+1  

What a fantastic post.

Despite the fact that it drew up some horrid memories from when I was growing up, I think that it's still a fantastic piece.

Unfortunately what a lot of people don't think about is that this kind of behaviour is carried into adulthood.
Even in my 20's I see girls acting the exact same way as they did when they were in their teens. Even when I look at my mother's group of friends, there is a pecking order.

I hope that your daughter will make it through these times with the least amount of tears shed. Obviously best if there were non shed at all.

January 18, 2008 at 10:32:00 AM GMT+1  

Your daughter is lucky to have a mother like you. Great that you educated yourself about this problem, helped your daughter and are now helping others by your story. And it sounds like your daughter has learned some valuable life lessons.

Meg Wolff said...
January 20, 2008 at 9:29:00 PM GMT+1  

Dear Manisha,

Very informative, and well-written article...In fact, its not even necessary for children to start two and half year old doesnt go to school yet, but still faces similar problems in the neighbourhood girl's group !!! I mean, I dont think I can classify it so much as bullying, but definitely, I can see it happening and don't know how to explain to such a little one...!!!!

Santhi said...
January 22, 2008 at 12:27:00 PM GMT+1  

Manisha, what a well written piece! Miri sent this post to me because my 6 year old daughter has been facing a similar problem as your daughter. Being a very sensitive child she has been picked on not only in the school but also in the local playground....all by girls! We too have been bolstering her confidence at home and counselling her that she does not need to please anyone if they are not nice to her. While the other girls have not entirely stopped their being daughter is much less sensitive to their antics and has learnt to ignore and walk away as much as she can.

Unknown said...
February 4, 2008 at 9:48:00 AM GMT+1  

manisha, very well written post. My friend's son has a similar problem , though only 4 years of age. He cannot communicate as good as a normal 4 yr old , often bullied , a loner and often a victim of being beaten up or bitten. He cringes at seeing another new kid and refuses to go to school, it pains me to see the child go through this... I would love to pass this article to her

Dee said...
July 1, 2008 at 6:05:00 AM GMT+2  

Meeta! This was such an insightful post. Thanks for sharing your experience in such detail. I learnt so much from this. Yur mantra for handling peer related issues seems so simple...focus on strengths, acknowledge weaknesses, and show them you love them for what they are. Wow. Brilliant wisdom, this, and I know I will remmeber and apply this to all issues that we have with our 5 year old.

Kudos to you for such clarity and sensibility.

Tharini said...
September 8, 2008 at 3:48:00 PM GMT+2  

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