How Not to Raise a Mean Girl
By Selena Mills
Nov 30, 2017
I’m a mother with a daughter, and as a parent like you, I have a lot to think about every hour of every day. Today I’m thinking about how I’m raising her to be a good human. And while I’m in the early days of grasping all that this requires, what I’ve gleaned so far from my own experiences is this: it is significantly more difficult to raise a nice girl than it is to raise a mean one.
It is significantly more difficult to raise a nice girl than it is to raise a mean one.
It’s cool to be mean after all. As many of us have seen in movies like Mean Girls and, Heathers, we know the pursuit of cool-girl status, or popularity, or even reluctantly in trying to fit in, goes hand-in-hand with being a mean girl. Furthermore, the hyper-sexualized culture of “femininity” we’ve been sold for generations lies at the distorted foundation of attaining popularity. As University of Guelph PhD candidate Sara Crann points out in her excellent dissertation on girlhood, “mean girl” discourse is characterized by girls’ use of relational aggression — things like gossip and spreading rumours — to gain social status and power. Standing up against the status quo isn’t easy for young girls with peers ready to pounce. It’s not just tween and teen girls who are marketed to and sold misleading ideas on style, what to wear and how to talk with their peers and adults either. Little girls are getting it from every angle too (TV shows, YouTube videos, the list goes on and on). And I know this isn't just a girl-world-thing, either. It's a boy-thing. And it's an LGBTQ-thing. So, while meanness and bullying happens amongst many kids who are migrating through comprehensive sexuality and identity discoveries, today I’m getting specific.
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Girl world may be changing (and, in some ways, not changing), and I’m prepared for some of it. I’m prepared for the name-calling, the gossip, and the inevitable clique forming. I’m prepared because it happened to me. And it probably happened to you, too.
While I’m not an expert, I’ve learned a thing or two about being a girl along the way to becoming a woman, now a mother. Crann also notes that being “catty,” “gossipy,” and “judgmental” have been framed as markers for a typical girlhood. But now that I have a daughter, reflecting on my own collective experiences has left me with some wisdom I wish to impart. Here’s how I’m teaching those who I work with and my own daughter to push against these “social norms,” while also helping to bring up kind, strong girls focused on constructing communities of sisterhood:
Empower a sisterhood of good listeners and helpers
When we teach girls to curb the impulses for sarcasm, competition and judgment, and stress the importance of listening and empathy, something amazing can happen: they begin to feel empowered simply by being a good human. I’ve watched this happen countless times with youth I’ve worked with, both as a former social worker and in my continued work as a volunteer.
Be a safe space
When (not if) my daughter runs into personality clashes with her female peers at school, the first step will begin at home in digging into the ‘whys’ on a deeper level. While I’m not about forcing people to be friends, I don’t plan on sugar-coating things either! I am about honesty and being the house on the block where kids can come to be their authentic selves. Not only for my daughter, but her friends too. This includes invites to dinner and birthday parties when we can (especially the ones who never get invited), craft sessions, bike rides and hikes, movie nights, female empowerment programming, camps, workshops and literature. I hope to continue my quest in cracking the girlhood mean-code through female-positive music, art and other multi-disciplinary events and activities with my daughter and her peers when the opportunity arises, or when intervention is necessary.
I’ve found that mean girls often have someone at home being mean to them, or there’s someone of influence in their life setting that example.
I will continue to encourage my daughter to build relationships based on kindness and empathy. There’s a not-so-fine line between excluding someone because you just don't have chemistry and excluding someone because of their social status, their cultural beliefs, what they wear to school or what they look like.
Understand your limitations
What if it turns out that my girl is the mean one? I might be do everything I can to avoid that, but peer influence is powerful, and I have to come to terms with the fact that I can’t be everywhere, always. What I can do is continue to focus on instilling self-worth, and challenge any status quo messages my daughter is getting about female inferiority and mistrust between women.
I don’t expect change to happen in a week. And my daughter is six and I've already got some push back. But we have to push on, parents. Push on. At school they call it the buddy bench, but at home we call it learning how to relate, empathize and build healthy, strong friendships. You know, instead of fake ones rife with judgment and snark.
Set the example
I’ve found that mean girls often have someone at home being mean to them, or there’s someone of influence in their life setting that example. When our girls see us gossiping about other people, we’re creating a model for them. This also goes for our online behavious as adults. “Trolling” is a norm online amongst adults, so it’s difficult to put limitations/expectations on what kids do. But, as the old adage goes; monkey see, monkey do. From the types of images/selfies that are taken and shared, the comments that go down on their public profiles to live Instagram stories and the Snapchats they share, these things can and should be monitored. As much as we don’t want to admit it, online relationships have a huge impact on our kids, and there is a powerful fluidity between online and offline experiences and attitudes, however covert those behaviours may be.
Beyond that, we can also support one another as adults, and find opportunities to lift one another up in our social landscapes, in our online and offline communities, and teach our daughters the incredible power of female friendships.
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