Laying the Foundation:
The Four- Step Approach
The Rise of Social Cruelty
We have all heard the phrase before: Girls are mean—at least they can be. These words are said as a statement of fact and rarely questioned. It is the end of the discussion, as opposed to the beginning of one. Why is that? Why do we make no bones about stating that girls—indeed all children—can be openly and outwardly cruel, and yet we as parents, counselors, and educators feel so helpless to do anything about this? Cliques happen. Girls will be girls. Those girls we care about—be it our daughters, our clients, or our students—simply need to learn to navigate the rocky terrain of growing up female.
To a certain extent this is true. As long as there are groups of children who gather together in the minisociety we know as school, there will be wonderful acts of friendship and devastating acts of betrayal. The reality is that all children are capable of cruel acts: often as part of a group experience, sometimes on their own initiative. The longing to fit in and be part of something beyond themselves is not only a natural developmental drive but a necessary and even beneficial one. Our human need for connection is inherent, as is our need for food and water. The phrase “dying of loneliness” is as much a real possibility as it is a metaphor.
This powerful need to be part of a social group is firmly set by the time children enter elementary school. Even in preschool, children include or exclude one another; you’ve probably seen teasing, name-calling, and worse. Teachers will comfortably intervene at this age, mostly telling children they need to include everyone, be kind to their friends, or other such peacemaking instruction. But by elementary school, children are less supervised—even in kindergarten—and they begin to test the influence of their own power. They seek connections with friends at what might be described as “any cost.”
Take Anaya*, a five-year-old African American kindergartener from an urban public school in Chicago. Anaya is described by her teachers as a bright, sweet girl. She is one of the “good kids” in the class, which means she is not a discipline problem in school. The twenty-eight children in Anaya’s class come from a wide array of backgrounds—African American, Latino, Asian, Caucasian—and many are biracial. The teacher, Mrs. Hernandez, describes the group as one of her nicer classes. It is early in the year, but Mrs. Hernandez says there have not been many incidents that would raise the attention of the staff.
When asked what types of “incidents” she is referring to, Mrs. Hernandez is quick to list small offenses that will get a child a timeout or a loss of recess. She then goes on to name larger infractions that will result in a trip to the principal’s office or a call to a child’s parents. “There is the usual rough-and-tumble stuff. Boys who punch, pig piles that lead to bruises, stuff like that. A onetime event, as long as there is no blood or broken bones, we handle ourselves. But if we start noticing a pattern of aggressive behavior, or if a child or group of children is not able to learn some impulse control, we have to step up the discipline.
“We have zero tolerance for bullies at our school, and a strong anti-bully program. It’s a six-week series that helps students identify and deal with bullying behaviors, when to get help, stuff like that. We’ve seen a real change in the ten years I’ve been teaching as a result. The principal is involved sooner. Parents are brought in. We take it all very seriously.”
When asked which children are the ones who get in the kinds of trouble she describes, Mrs. Hernandez responds quickly, “Oh, it’s far and away a boy problem. We certainly get our share of aggressive girls—you know, the ones who kiss the boys, pull hair, that kind of thing. But mostly, when you talk about the bigger-scale infractions, we have been dealing with boy aggression.”
How does girl aggression manifest itself? Mrs. Hernandez has to think a moment. “Girl meanness. We have it at our school for sure, but mostly in the older grades. The cliques really begin in fourth grade, although you can see the prelude to them even in kindergarten. But it’s not a problem like it is with the boys. With boys, kids can really get hurt.”
Mrs. Hernandez’s assessment is like many teachers’, administrators’, and parents’: Girls can be mean. It’s simply a fact of life. The sun shines, the rains come, and girls can be mean. They can exclude and betray, but it’s the boys’ physically aggressive behavior that can really lead to someone getting hurt. The truth of this statement at its surface is palpable—everyone longs to prevent school violence. Sadly, however, this belief system ignores a less physical, but potentially just as damaging, experience for half of the population.
Relational Aggression Research
The fact is, research has shown that girls can be just as aggressive as boys, if we redefine “aggressive acts” to include the verbal variety, like cruel words, the silent treatment, exclusion, backstabbing, rumor spreading, and other such behaviors. Social scientists who study friendship and group dynamics among children define such acts, including systematic teasing, as “relational aggression” or “social cruelty.” Relational aggression is reported to be as painful to its victims as physical blows—and maybe more lasting in its effects.1 Information from the Ophelia Project, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing relational aggression in all its manifestations, states that relational aggression often results in physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, for both the aggressor and the target.2
Friendship struggles, relational aggression, and girl bullying clearly take their toll, and continue unaddressed, at least in part because of the fact that these behaviors are so “hidden” in girl culture that adults often don’t even know they are happening. When they do, they frequently write them off. Researcher Nicki Crick, of the University of Minnesota, and her colleagues strongly disagree with this approach, defining relational aggression as “behaviors that harm others through damage (or the threat of damage) to relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship, or group inclusion.”3
Remembering Mrs. Hernandez’s assessment of her kindergarteners, listen to Anaya nonchalantly relate a story that could be told on any playground at any school in any city or town: “In my kindergarten, at recess, there was a group of girls—the older ones—who were already six. There were also some of us who were still five, hanging out with them. Then one of them shouts out, ‘Who is still only five?’ The older girls only wanted to play with the six-year-olds, and I was still five. But I wanted to play with them, so I said I was six and they just believed me.”
When asked why she told them she was six, she reports flatly, “It wasn’t fair that they said you had to be six to play, and they were my friends so I wanted to play with them.” And the other girls, the five-year-olds? “They were walking around us and they asked to play and the six-year-olds said, ‘No! You can’t play!’ But I was glad I got to play.” How did Anaya feel when she saw her five-year-old friends excluded? “I didn’t care,” she states matter-of-factly, “I was just glad that I could.”
Is Anaya unusual in her desire to want to belong to the “in” club of the moment? Is she a “mean girl” for not thinking of the excluded girls? No, she is a normal, healthy, typical five-year-old girl trying to navigate the social waters of school life. Girls as young as three to five years of age exhibit patterns of relational aggression,4 and these patterns have been found to be relatively consistent over time.5 And Anaya (and her situation) are not unique to her or her school environment.
Private School Emma
Meet Emma, a kindergartener who attends a small, private K–8 school in a suburb of Boston. The school follows an established anti-bullying program and integrates lessons into every grade. Similar to Anaya, Emma is considered a good student, easygoing, and well liked.
Today Emma reports, “Rebecca is not my friend.” When asked why, she responds, “Well, when I went up to her on the playground, she threw her arms in the air and shouted, ‘Get away! Get away from me! I don’t want to play with you! I’m playing with Lily!’ ” In Emma’s reenactment we can see how startled she was at such a loud and demonstrative objection to something as “simple” as her wanting to enter the play. Teaching children how to join social interactions and make friends is a component of virtually every preschool and kindergarten in the country. Despite her school’s inclusive policies, Rebecca felt no concern about openly (and vociferously) excluding another student. When asked what she did to confront the exclusion, Emma shrugs despondently. Did she remind Rebecca of the school’s rules of inclusion? Was she able to get her other friend Lily to open the play to her? Did she run off to find friends who were more welcoming? “No,” Emma tells us, looking downward, “I saw Rebecca whispering to Lily about me, so after that, I was alone.”
Such scenarios are not unique to kindergarten. For many—if not most—girls, being included is of utmost importance, even at the price of “fairness” or other friendships, at least in that moment. Being excluded has a powerful impact on children. As is evident in Emma’s response, the results may not be seen by the teacher, and they may not draw the attention of school personnel, but they significantly affect girls of all ages, socially and emotionally and, as you will also learn, academically. Even when retelling this story, Emma reexperiences the emotions she felt at the time of the incident. And she is not alone.
Friendship Struggles and Learning
Take Kayla, a friendly, outgoing eight-year-old from Stockton, California. Kayla walks into her second-grade class, excited to play with Hadley before the school day starts. The pair share laughs and touch each other’s hair in a way that many young girls do as a show of affection. Mrs. Jackson calls the children over to the rug to begin Morning Meeting. When Mrs. Jackson is ready to talk about the calendar, it is clear that Kayla is not.
Kayla is distraught because her friend Sasha is being “mean.” Kayla, Hadley, and Sasha can often be seen sifting rocks underneath the play structures, or taking turns on the monkey bars at recess, so Mrs. Jackson tries to uncover what has gone wrong in their friendship so early in the day. “Sasha told me that she didn’t want to sit next to me on the rug.”
Following up, Mrs. Jackson asks, “What did you do when she said that?”
“I came over to you,” Kayla reports.
Mrs. Jackson tells her, “Well, you need to tell Sasha how that made you feel.”
Kayla walks over to Sasha and says, “It made me really sad when you told me that I couldn’t sit next to you.”
“SHHH!” shouts Sasha, turning away. “I’m listening to Mrs. Jackson do the calendar!” Kayla, despondent, realizes that Mrs. Jackson has indeed begun Meeting. Not wanting to get in trouble or cause a scene, she sits down, her chin between her hands, eyes cast downward on the carpet.
As most parents and teachers will agree, every child—boy and girl—will have such experiences. However, research by developmentalists, educators, and psychologists shows that by adolescence, this systematic set of “female interactions” has taken its toll on girls’ psyches and selfesteem.6 These behaviors have also been associated with problems in peer relationships and with higher levels of depression.7
Excerpted from Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert.
Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert.
Published in August 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.