My three-year-old girl came home from daycare with a note.
Ever since our littlest has been old enough to walk and play, Anabelle, older by only a handful of months, has been a terror. Grabbing toys from her little sister for no reason, shoving the baby, shouting at her; in essence: being a bully. The professionals have all told us her behavior is normal. As long as she shows signs of affection too—which she does—and doesn’t do anything excessively violent—which she doesn’t— it’s okay. Still, some ideas have begun to form in my mind about Anabelle. Nothing solid, not yet manifested into words or actions, but a feeling, whispering, in the back of my mind. Like an aftertaste when I think about her.
My daughter might be a Mean Girl.
Earlier this week, I published a guest post by author Jasminder about her experiences with childhood and adolescent bullying. It was hard to read about kids calling her dirty and mocking her for having brown skin and dark hair. Harder even to read about how she internalized those experiences, and began to believe them. I know that feeling well; part of the reason I have difficulties with apologizing or taking responsibility sometimes is because (I’ve come to understand) my brother tortured me as a child by calling me a mistake who should never have been born. He treated me like an outcast in my own home. Because of that, I carry a feeling of wrongness in my body; a feeling like my very essence is a complete mistake. It’s hard, feeling that way, to admit to more mistakes on top of it.
The students who hurt Jasminder were kids, but their parents were adults–and those adults should have been more aware of the mentality their kids were adopting. Those parents should have actively included people from other cultures in their lives so their kids understood there was nothing wrong with looking different. Just as my father should have told his son that I was his little girl, not some random mistake clumped up behind the couch. That may not have happened, but those of us who are parents now have the opportunity to help stop bullying. How do we keep cruelty from growing in the hearts of our children?
How Not To Raise A Mean Girl
When the note came home from daycare, I’ll admit it; I thought it was to tell me Anabelle had done something wrong.
“Anabelle was kicked in the head by another student,” the note read, “She has a small cut on her lip, which we treated with ice and a towel.”
That was all the note told us. I was immediately ashamed for assuming that my three year old had been the aggressor. After my husband and I tended her lip, we hugged her, sat her down, and asked her what happened. At first she was quiet, but soon a shift happened. I’ve seen it in her before, when she becomes overtaken by storytelling; when something really needs to come out. Her inflection lightens, her body posture relaxes. She begins to gesticulate, and her chubby limbs become almost adult in their motions. Her eyes lose focus. She’s deep in there, in the event she’s telling. When this change happens, the story just flows out, sometimes so quickly not all of it makes sense, and it doesn’t take long for us to recognize events have become jumbled. Anything that was big or scary for her gets puzzled into the story. Her hospital stay when she had pneumonia. The time our neighbor got too drunk and tried to open our door instead of his. The other day, when I lost my temper and yelled too loudly. But my husband and I hear enough, before all of these other events start getting processed, to get an idea happened at daycare.
The kick came from Leila (name changed), a classmate of hers, who also rides in the vanpool with her. We don’t know much about Leila, have only caught glimpses of her on the van, but in the next several months she will practically become a member of the family in absentia. Leila will get blamed for everything; from every scrape or bruise Anabelle brings home, to the mess of paint on her clothes, to her nightmares, to the person who pushed her sister moments ago when my back was turned.
This is how bullying–real bullying–the kind of bullying that can end a life, begins. The teachers have told us, without actually telling us, that Leila has a troubled past. She has impulse control issues; she’s taking her hurt and pain and mirroring it in the classroom, transferring it to my Anabelle, and other students. Now Anabelle is coming home and mirroring it here, transferring it to her little sister, and using it to excuse her behavior—the way abusers often do.
I have a very personal relationship with the beast known as Girl Bullying. I was bullied in middle school, body shamed first for being too fat, and then, after I became anorexic and dropped to 89 lbs; shamed for being too skinny. I grew to hate other girls, especially the ones I deemed “preppy.”
“I like boys better; most of my friends are boys,” I’d say, when asked about my girlfriends. Then I’d feel perplexed when my girlfriends echoed the sentiment. Well, aren’t I their friend? I’d think, not recognizing the hypocrisy. It was like we all had this idea of what “Girl” meant and it was something we all disliked. That is the effect of Girl Bullying. We develop an idea that by being intelligent, independent, creative, and thoughtful we are “different.” Other girls, instead, are vapid; something annoying, and which we need to compete against. We split into subtypes and demean anyone who falls outside of our group or threatens our own self-image in any way.
When I was sixteen, as anyone who follows this blog knows, I entered into an abusive relationship. Like most abusive relationships, the abuse was slow and insidious, and before anything I could really recognize as abuse occurred, I was in love with him. Which meant that I stayed for four years. During those four years he committed every form of abuse against me, including cheating. A lot.
I should have been angry at him, but instead I turned my rage and hurt onto those women; women who were victims themselves, who could have been my allies, but who I instead made into enemies. That mentality stayed with me for years, even after I left him. Ten years distanced from my abuser, and many more between my middle school tormentors, I still fight the psychological effects of Girl Bullying and domestic abuse.
I did not expect to be dealing with bullying in my daughters’ lives so soon. I’m not sure yet what to do, or how to handle this situation. But I do know one thing: I want to teach my daughters–both of them–to be girls who like other girls. Who respect girls who are different from them. Who show compassion to girls who are hurting, and who serve as allies for girls who are picked on. I want my girls to befriend girls—all different types of girls—and proudly!
Talking only goes so far. I can tell Anabelle to be nice to Leila, even when she’s mean. I can direct my daughters to share toys with each other, to fairly distribute treats instead of hoarding them. I can tell them to be proud of what makes them unique and special, and to celebrate the differences of their friends and classmates too. But I also have to show them.
Having post-traumatic stress disorder as the result of abuse means a lot of anxiety—especially social anxiety—self-esteem issues, and trouble communicating aloud. Friendship is not easy for me. Some of the lessons I hold dear are easy to model. Compassion, fairness, love for family; I demonstrate these to my daughters every day. But showing my daughters to respect girls and women who are different from them is a feat. I still have my jealousies; those negative associations my ex’s cheating grooved into my brain. And I have my trauma symptoms to combat. But it’s important. And I have to try.
My three year old has it in her to grow into a Mean Girl. I see it when she gets angry. I see it when she doesn’t want to share a toy. I see it when she just feels jealous of her sister and does something spiteful and pointless to show it.
But she also has it in her to be sweet, and generous, and funny. She’ll be a leader—I guarantee it. It’s on me to help shape what kind of leader she will be. So I work through my problems with other women. I write about them. I talk about them at therapy. And I intentionally interact with other women in front of my daughters. Not just the women who dress like me, but the ones who don’t, too. The ones who I probably would have hated, or ignored, or feared, if we were 14 again.
And when Anabelle comes home complaining about Leila, I tell her to try being nice. Invite her to play. Tell her to stop, if she hurts her, but don’t hurt her back.
I think all moms secretly wish we could control the world, but we can’t. We can’t protect our children from everything. What we can do is teach kindness and inclusion. The “Mean Girls” phenomenon doesn’t have to happen. We have the power to stop it.
I invite you to join me in a pledge to raise daughters who include every kind of girl in their friend circles. Start simple: Next time you come across a type of woman you would usually ignore, say “hello,” instead. See what happens—you never know who she might turn out to be.