Boys will be boys,” but “girls will be girls.” While there have been many articles and books written about aggressive boy behavior and bullying, there is very little written about girl behavior, which can sometimes be just as aggressive and mean as the behavior that many boys exhibit.
Whether they are born that way or have been taught, girls want to be “nice.” They do not want to be mean, and they seldom recognize aggression in themselves. Many girls have joined my class to find instant acceptance, invitations to play, and affectionate treatment. This has happened with girls of all races, colors, hairstyles, and clothing preferences. On other occasions, however, a girl has joined my class and been instantly disliked and excluded by some of the other girls. The reason for the exclusion is often a mystery, but it appears to relate more to personality and behavior than looks. In slang terms, this new girl “sends off vibes.” If she is more aggressive or shyer than the others, or says or does something that the other girls find strange or unusual, she may find herself ignored and excluded.
Girl-to-girl meanness is as harmful as physical bullying between boys, but it is harder to detect. It might be as subtle as making a disdainful face and turning a back, or as blatant as: “You can’t play with us,” but these are not behaviors you can point out and correct in simple four-year-old terms. In fact, you might not even notice such interactions. If you are aware of this type of exclusion, you can sometimes appeal to the girls’ budding empathy, but empathy that is imposed may only last as long as you’re watching.
What can you, the parent of a young girl, do to prevent your child from becoming either a victim or the instigator of mean girl behavior? Children learn from the examples their parents provide so above all, be a good role model and ask yourself some important questions:
- Do I feel superior and demonstrate superiority in any way to my child?
- Am I openly self-critical? A perfectionist?
- Do I gossip and criticize others in front of my child?
- Do I allow others to take advantage of me and do I react passively?
- Do I force my child to say, “I’m sorry,” even if something isn’t her fault?
- Do I criticize instead of encourage?
- Do I emphasize obedience and compliance more than independence and problem solving?
- Do I show my child that I value good character, courage, honesty, and other enduring qualities in people, not the way they look or what they possess?
You can also help your child by teaching her to be assertive. A girl who can say “stop!” or “no” or “I don’t play with mean girls,” is less likely to be picked on. In addition, teach your child how to be empathetic by explaining how others feel when mean things are said and done to them.
Teaching assertiveness and empathy are often more meaningful when taught by a parent, and one way to teach these behaviors is through role-playing. Take turns playing the role of the “nice” girl and the “mean” girl and talk about how each role feels to both of you. Then help your child think of some strategies for dealing with mean behavior. Finally, promise your child every day that she can come to you with any concerns about her relationships, and keep that promise. There is no perfect way to avoid girl-to-girl meanness, but you can always be there to help your child deal with it until she is assertive enough to deal with it by herself.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org