Girls aren’t mean. Bullies are rare. There, I said it. I just had to get that off my chest.
In a presentation recently, I heard a respected educator say to a group of 10- to 12-year-old girls and their parents that “girls are mean.” As a mom with two daughters — one of whom was at the presentation with me — and as a mental health professional, I have grown weary of these terms. Though I am quite certain I have used the term “mean girls” at times, I have come to realize that these terms are so very limiting to our kids. Limiting to the child being labeled “mean,” but also limiting to the child on the other end of a behavior that feels bad.
Let’s look at “mean girls” and “bullies.”
I know there are times where children cause each other intentional harm. There are kids who have patterns of repetitive behavior meant to harm and belittle their peers. We can and should label that appropriately and handle it with all the resources necessary to end it. What about all the other stuff? Whether my child talking is talking to me at home or a young person talking to me at work, most of the time, what I hear lacks a key element of “mean girls” or “bullying.” It lacks intention. We seem to have forgotten that these are kids. Kids beginning to take control of their social lives from us, their parents, teachers, and other adults. They are suddenly in the driver’s seat and they are really terrible drivers. We shouldn’t expect them to be very good at this; they haven’t had all that many opportunities to learn. Childhood and adolescence is where the learn the skills.
Most of the time, the uncomfortable social situation is what I would call a social blunder. Something one child didn’t realize would hurt another child’s feelings, but it very much did. And I worry that using these terms to tell kids which ones are good or bad further divides us in a world already dominated by devices and disconnection. Or maybe we even tell them they are all bad, as the educator did in the presentation.
What about the kid whose feelings are hurt?
I worry about them too. I worry we will never teach them the value of grace and forgiveness, if we label everyone who treats them poorly a “mean girl” or a “bully.” I worry that we are teaching them to judge themselves when they make the very same social blunders that were labeled bad on their behalf just days, weeks, or months prior. This learning to be social thing is super messy and there is going to have to be a lot of forgiveness involved, why not start learning it, instead of learning to label your friends and turn them into enemies?
Just imagine what it would be like, for one second, to ask them to be kind to each other even when its hard. Is that really such a bad idea? I am not saying kids have to be doormats to those who are abusive. Bullies exist and their behavior needs to be handled. It just feels like we have become ineffective in dealing with the actual bullies and the real mean girls, when those terms have become synonymous with every misdeed of childhood, instead of being reserved for the kids who really are causing repetitive torment. Let’s let our kids be a little bit bad at socializing, so they can learn. This may be the best way they can learn to be better and they can learn the wonderful value of a little bit of forgiveness and compassion for themselves and others.
I really loved this piece, Victoria! Thanks so much for helping us reframe the narrative.