by Katie Hurley
Once upon a time, fourth grade was the year that young girls began to have difficulty navigating friendships. For many years, I worked in a school for kids with learning disabilities. It was always during fourth grade that previously established friendships began to hit turbulence. Names were called. Gossip was spread. Feelings were hurt.
The teachers always had to deal with the worst of it, of course, because the tears, eye rolling, and barely audible sarcastic comments had a way of surfacing the very moment the teachers started teaching.
Some days, the girls resolved their own issues and the previously ex-best friends were new best friends again by the time the school buses lined the driveway. Other days, the standoffs continued until every last student left the building.
It was a complicated system of friending and unfriending long before social media brought such a concept to our fingertips. Desperate to put an end to the shifting alliances and crying girls hiding in bathrooms when they should be doing math, some of the teachers asked me to intervene. So I did.
I started a friendship club. That’s what we called it, anyway. A few of them rolled their eyes at the name, but the truth is they were bored of the usual lunch/recess games and happy to join me in the library to talk about friendship once a week. We crafted and played games while we chatted, and I spent the better part of those meetings teaching the girls about empathy and kindness. Because even in the fourth grade, kids still need lessons in those two very important topics.
A few weeks into the group, a wonderful thing happened. The girls started sharing their feelings with one another. They started talking about the things that bugged them and the things that made them happy. One girl taught another girl how to sew. Two girls who thought they had nothing in common became very close friends. When the girls stopped judging and started listening and empathizing, they felt empowered. And the mean girl stuff that once threatened their emotional and academic well being became a thing of the past. Imagine that?
All of that progress occurred because someone took the time to help them learn to relate and empathize. Someone showed them a better way to establish and navigate friendships. It wasn’t perfect, and it didn’t happen in one week, but it happened.
Sadly, the latest PEW research shows that things like empathy and kindness are low on the list of the traits that the majority of parents deem important for kids right now. Parents, it seems, are much more interested in raising “hard working” and “responsible” kids than raising kind and empathic kids. That’s a shame, really, because kids learn a lot about working hard and being responsible the moment they enter school, but things like empathy and kindness should begin at home.
If we want to put an end to “mean girl” behavior, if we want to stop the covert bullying based on judgment, jealousy, and gossip, we have to teach girls how to relate. We have to show them how to establish healthy friendships, how to listen for the sake of listening (not for the sake of crafting a witty retort), and how to build each other up along the way.
All children have their own individual strengths, and yet our culture celebrates fitting in. We might tell them to get out there and be individuals, but we send them out into a world where identifying with one group or another is essential. Without a group, kids feel lost. But group dynamics can be tricky, and that can pose a problem for many.
While it is perfectly normal for young girls to gravitate toward other girls with common interests, it’s also important to teach our girls to celebrate differences and look for the good in others.
With consistent feedback on kindness and empathy, we can raise a generation of girls who reverse the trend of mean girl behavior that seems to grow in size with each passing year. We can make a difference.
Empower them to help. Competitive parenting isn’t just toxic for the parents caught in the race to the finish line, you know, it also negatively impacts the children witnessing the competition. Stop competing. Your family is your family and it doesn’t matter what other families are doing. Your child might go to Harvard. She might go to a state college. She might become a dancer, an artist, or a teacher. Your job is not to shape her into some version of perfection, your job is to support her as she grows and establishes her own goals and dreams.
Instead of focusing on the unknown, empower your daughter to help a friend in need. Empower her to be a change agent within her community, to think about the wellbeing of others instead of thinking about whether or not others are performing as well as, or better than, her in any given task.
Kill the sarcasm. I hear a lot of sarcasm between parents and children. Parents rely on sarcasm when they’re tired, frustrated, or downright angry. It’s hurtful. It leaves children feeling confused, upset, and helpless. It’s bad for the soul. And yet, parents continue to use it, often in front of other children and adults.
Stop using sarcasm as a form of communication with your daughter. She might not understand all of it right this very moment, but she will internalize it and she will repeat it. She will work it into her own vernacular, and she will use it to hurt other people down the line.
Say what you mean. Be clear. Talk about feelings and model empathy. Rely on honest communication. If you do that, your daughter will learn to do the same.
Create a positive group for girls. You don’t have to coach your daughter’s basketball team to help your daughter and her friends establish positive and healthy friendships. Host a monthly knitting or book group. Start a running club. Consider a creative writing group.
Consistency is the key to helping young girls work on navigating the tumultuous feelings that can accompany making and keeping friends. Find something, or a few somethings, that sparks their interest and make that friendship group happen at least once a month. Within the safety of that group, your daughter and her peers will learn to listen and empathize, build each other up, and stick together no matter what obstacles might come their way.
And those are lessons worth teaching.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. Her work can be found on EverydayFamily, Momtastic, mom.me, Yahoo Parenting, PBS Parents and The Huffington Post. Katie writes the parenting blog, Practical Parenting. Katie splits her time between Los Angeles and the Connecticut coast with her rock and roll husband and their two happy children.