A friend of mine recently posted something on Facebook that made me feel pretty anxious and reminded me that there are some rocky roads ahead. She has a nice, kind daughter, and the little girl has decided that she wants to be friends with the resident “mean girl.”
My first reaction to that is, “Oh heck no! Find a way to discourage that!” But as I sat with the issue a bit, I rethought that position.
What if the mean girl would benefit from the presence of someone kind and compassionate?
What if the mean girl is mean for some underlying reason, and needs someone to love her?
But then again, what if the mean girl is just plain mean?
What if I say my child can’t be friends with her, but my kiddo hangs out with her during school?
Yikes—as parents, how do we navigate this situation? We have no way of truly knowing why the girl in question behaves this way. Additionally, we have no control over how the girl acts.
We have a teeny bit of control over how our children behave. A teeny bit.
I think this is a situation that requires many conversations over a long period of time.
Why the Mean Girl?
One thing to keep in mind as the parent of the nice kid: Often, being part of the mean-girl group is suuuuuuper enticing. There’s just something about those kids that is magnetic.
In middle school, I was one of those kids who was drawn to the mean girls’ group. And, as I reflect on it, the majority of the girls in that group were actually very nice! The two most powerful (for lack of a better word) girls were the mean ones.
So why might nice kids want to be part of a group of meanies?
Maybe they look like they’re having more fun than everyone else.
Maybe it’s to avoid being the object of their ridicule.
Maybe the nice kid thinks she’ll be cool by association and life will just be better. (I think that was my reasoning. Cringeworthy, for sure.)
How Can We Approach This Effectively?
Childhood friendships often bloom and are maintained at school during recess, so there’s not much we as parents can do to prevent certain friendships and promote others.
Additionally, I think it’s pretty common knowledge that when parents forbid their children from doing something, that something becomes all the more intriguing. I’m not sure when kids start actively doing the opposite of what their parents want them to do, so probably at any age it’s best to have an open dialogue with them instead of trying to lay down the law.
Setting our children up with a solid social-emotional foundation is a good place to start. If they can understand their own needs and try to understand where others are coming from, they may be able to figure out the best course of action on their own.
And since we can’t be on the playground to oversee their behavior (that’s still taboo, isn’t it?), this is the best we can ask for.
The Basis of My Thought Process
We can use some of the core social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies promoted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to guide our conversations around this topic. There are five competencies—I’m not sure that they all work with this situation, so I will only focus on four: Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making.
I should note that CASEL presents the competencies as a wheel. As I began writing this post, I understood why. This problem is not something that can be tackled linearly, by focusing on one competency at a time. We should consider each of them the whole time we work with our children.
You may notice that some of my thinking in one category overlaps with thinking from another category. It seems to be unavoidable, so I hope you’ll understand!
I also realized as I wrote that it was really hard to use general pronouns and continue to make sense! So, in this little scenario, we have “nice girl” Hermione and “mean girl” Katniss.
Yeah. I like to read young adult novels. So?
Moving on… 🙂
When we open up the conversation around whether it is a good idea for Hermione to befriend the mean girl Katniss, I think it may be best to start off with a discussion about what exactly Hermione needs in a friendship. This requires some self-awareness.
We need to help Hermione understand her own values and decide whether she expects her friends to share those values.
Another facet of self-awareness is the ability to understand complex emotions.
If we have open communication with Hermione, we are likely already aware of some incidents that have happened that led us to believe that Katniss is truly a mean girl. That said, we can use Hermione’s prior experiences to help her see how those incidents made her feel.
For example, say Katniss told Hermione’s whole second-grade class that Hermione still wears pull-ups to bed. Yikes!!
We would gently bring up that moment with Hermione and ask how that made her feel. If she has a hard time putting it into words (kids in second grade are still developing their understanding of emotions like embarrassment), then we would help with that.
We might then ask if she wants to be friends with someone who embarrasses her. By doing this, we are helping Hermione understand what she values in a friendship and how Katniss fits in with that. She may come to the conclusion that Katniss is a crappy friend all on her own.
There are a couple of facets to this one, as well. First off, Hermione should be aware of appropriate social behavior.
Does Katniss laugh when other kids get hurt, or does she try to help?
Does she say hi to her friends when they walk in the room, or does she ignore them?
Is she respectful to teachers and yard staff?
Once we’ve gone over the way Katniss is in social situations, we might go back to self-awareness and talk about whether these things are important.
Next, and probably most difficult for a defensive mama bear to do when her baby is in danger of getting hurt emotionally, is trying to be empathetic.
Why does Katniss behave this way?
Is she lonely?
Is she insecure?
Are her other friends mean to her?
Once we’ve tried to help Hermione be empathetic, we might help her explore whether there is a potential underlying issue that makes it the right thing to try befriending Katniss.
Admittedly, this may be a super long process and pretty difficult to do. But I think it’s worth giving Katniss the benefit of the doubt, at least initially. If nothing else, it’s a great exercise in compassion for Hermione. And for us.
According to the Parent Toolkit, children as young as six are likely able to describe the characteristics of a good friend. In addition to helping Hermione understand what she wants out of a friendship, we should help her articulate what a good friend is, objectively.
Is Katniss a good friend in general?
What might she need to do in order to be a good friend?
If, in the course of these discussions, Hermione decides that she would like to try being Katniss’s friend, we might suggest that Hermione model the traits of a good friend. This may help build a more healthy relationship.
Of course, as a “mean girl,” it is entirely possible that Katniss will either not appreciate Hermione’s kind gestures, or will not reciprocate them.
In this case, Hermione will have to decide how long she wants to continue working at this friendship.
As we work through this issue with Hermione, it is critical that we help her make responsible decisions. We should try to guide her into decisions that are ultimately in the best interests of all parties involved.
If Hermione decides to back away from the friendship with Katniss, how can she do so in a way that is as kind as possible?
If she decides to pursue the friendship, how can she be sure that she does not fall into the trap of becoming a mean girl herself?
Regardless of the decision Hermione makes (and the millions of little decisions she will have to make along the way), it is super important that we maintain open lines of communication so that we can fully support her in her exploration of the issue.
How Does This Get Resolved?
Well, if Hermione decides to go ahead and befriend the mean girl, we have our work cut out for us in supporting her through the undoubtedly difficult times to follow.
Even if she decides not to pursue the friendship, that probably won’t be the end of the tricky situations. We want to be sure that Hermione feels comfortable coming to us, because she will likely need, if nothing else, a sounding board to help her figure out next steps.
While I don’t think it is our job to make decisions about friendships for our children (within reason—of course we’d intervene in extreme circumstances), I do think it is our job to help guide them through tough social situations like this one.
At this point in my parenting journey, the most complicated social situation I’ve had to deal with is “Peeta didn’t want to play with me today.” And this is usually long forgotten by the next day, when Peeta goes back to playing with him. Soooooo, I know there are much more difficult problems to solve in the future.
Where’s that parenting handbook again? Didn’t someone say there was one that solved all of our problems for us?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic! What can we do to help our kids when they face the “mean girl” (or boy, of course!) situation?