My daughter is going into 6th grade this year, which means I will have two—TWO—kids in middle school at the same time. What a fabulous time to be alive. I’m putting my therapist is on speed dial.
I remember being that age and how hard it was. Everything is changing, and it’s scary, embarrassing, confusing, exciting, weird, all of it. It is all of the emotions all of the time. It is angst. It is change—good and not so good; physical, emotional, circumstantial, social. Side note: my mom talked with us very openly about puberty changes from a young age, so though I was mortified by what was happening to my body, I wasn’t surprised. My mom used to always say, “You’re developing“. Over and over, I kept hearing that I was developing. God, I hated that word. I still do—there’s just something about it, the way it sounds in my ears. Probably because of the subject matter attached to it. I guess it’s better than blossoming, or flourishing. Blech. I have trouble even using it in other contexts, like a developing news story, a developing idea, a developing country. Anyhow, I think I have mostly been using the words “growing” and “changing” in our little girl talks, but my girl has made it clear that she DOES NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT. She does this by covering her ears and running away, or sliding down in her chair and escaping under the kitchen table at any mention of the subject. It’s going well.
Side note number two: Why isn’t anyone around me telling me about what’s happening to my 40-something year old body? It’s equally weird and alarming. I think I’m developing again. Or maybe un-developing. Something like that.
Anyhow, as a parent, I knew that once we crossed the middle school threshold that we were in for a bumpy ride. I was ready for the fact that there would be girl drama. We girls know all about it, unfortunately. What I wasn’t prepared for was that it would start so much earlier than I was anticipating.
Right around the middle of the school year in fifth grade, it began. Tears as she ran off the bus, telling me about how this friend did that, and then that friend told the other friend about it, and on and on, round and round. The players changed almost every week; I could hardly keep up. My emotions would flare as she recounted the details, and I wanted to just go over there and give those girls a piece of my mind….
But wait—she was telling me things that did not compute in my brain. These interactions were happening with her little group of sweet girls that she had been friends with since early elementary. I have known them all for years. They come to my house for sleepovers, birthday parties, and playdates. They wave happily to me in the hallway whenever I happen to be at school. I love them.
And yet, she is telling me that sweet little so-and so, who I would have thought could never hurt a fly, is pulling these power plays at school. Or sometimes it’s not that so-and-so, it’s some other what’s-her-name, and I’m just….horrified. Confused. Starting to relive my own repressed middle school trauma. I started to check myself (before I wrecked myself, ’cause I’m bad for your health, I come real stealth, dropping bombs on your moms…). Sorry Ice Cube, I’ll stop now.
I coach Girls on the Run every spring, and I had an opportunity to watch these situations play out first hand. It was awful. These girls that I have coached for years suddenly seemed to have zero interest in participating in the running and character building activities, choosing instead to dissociate themselves from the girls not in their social group and divert their attention to whatever social drama had been playing out during the rest of the school day. I started to see patterns—one girl showing up as the leader of the pack and the others following. I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to do something? Would that even interrupt this emerging (developing!) social order?
So I did what I always do. I bought a book. A very brilliant book called Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman. Anyone who remembers the movie Mean Girls from 2004 might be interested to know that the movie was based on this book. With great insight, the author details the sophisticated nature of cliques that emerge (develop!) during the teen and preteen years, with girls falling into very predictable roles:
The Queen Bee: As the name suggests, the Queen Bee is the leader of the pack. The popular one. Not only do the other girls follow her, the Queen continually exerts her power over the other girls to maintain her status and keep the others in line.
The Sidekick: The second in command and the Queen’s loyal subject. Though she is the Queen’s bestie, she does not have quite as much power as the Queen, and is still subject to the Queen’s authority. However, together the Queen and the Sidekick appear to rule the social world.
The Banker: This girl is a clever one. She manipulates other girls in a way that gets them to confide in her, and then she uses that information in order to strengthen her own social status and embarrass, cause conflict, or kick other girls down the popularity totem pole.
The Floater: She seems to be friends with everyone, often floating around to several social groups. Floaters tend not to engage in the power plays going on in a particular group, but they are well-liked, confident, nice to everyone, and sometimes will stand up to the Queen Bee if needed.
The Torn Bystander: As the name indicates, this girl wants the social status afforded to her by being in the clique and in the Queen’s good graces, but at the same time has internal conflict about doing the right thing. She will often get caught in the middle of conflict but is too scared to stand up to the Queen, choosing instead to try to accommodate everyone and try to get everyone to get along.
The Pleaser/Wannabee/Messenger: Wiseman says that most every girl will fall into this role at some point. Sometimes she’s in the clique, and sometimes she’s not. The Queen and the Sidekick will often use her in their power plays, getting her to do things like spread gossip. She is ever loyal to the Queen in an effort to remain in the clique, but she is easily dropped from the social group, which keeps her motivated to do things that will maintain her social status.
The Target: The one chosen by the queen to be mocked, excluded, and set up to be the victim. Targets outside of the clique are what the group considers to be “losers”. They are the Marty McFlys (McFlies? McFly’s? Grammar girl, help me!), the Ronald Millers (oh Patrick Dempsey, you were so super cute in the 80’s!), and the Napoleon Dynamites of the social order. Targets can also be a girl inside of the clique if it is felt that she needs to be knocked down a peg.
As I read Wiseman’s theory about teenage social order and the different roles that girls play within it, I started to see my daughter’s world with new eyes. The next GOTR practice, I watched. I saw it. It was painful. I began to see who was who. As tearful stories continued to come home from school, I was able to see them through a different lens. And I started to wonder:
“Where do these girls learn this stuff??” Not from me. I hardly even have any friends, let alone enough to form this kind of a complicated social structure. I also wondered, “What is my daughter’s role in her social group, and what is she doing to others to maintain it?” She can’t be innocent. Can’t be. If all of these not-so-little girls that I have watched grow up are capable of these things, surely so is she. I mean, she is a delightful cherub and all, but still.
My next questions are: What do I do?? Can I stop this cycle that has been going on in the world of middle and high school girls since the beginning of time? How do I know what is really going on when I only hear one side of the story? When do I intervene, and how? How do I help her? What do I say?
I don’t know any of it. I’m only part way through the book because I started reading it in May, which is the worst time of year to try to read a book because of all the end of school year activities, and then I got distracted by another book. I am sure that there is no easy answer though. If there were it wouldn’t keep happening, because none of us want our girls to endure such things.
What I do know is something that I could have never known when it was happening to me. It is all motivated by fear. Fear of being an outcast, not fitting in, being ostracized, not having anyone to sit with at lunch or hang out with on the weekends. Fear of sticking out. Fear of being different. Fear of setting boundaries. Fear of what will happen to their own social status if they stick up for someone else. Fear of the next move in this crazy chess game disguised as a popularity contest.
I can’t make that fear go away. The desire for belonging and acceptance in a peer group is a developmental need in this age group, just as urgent as the need for parental connection during infancy and, later, the need for exploration, autonomy, and mastering new skills.
If I hadn’t known them since kindergarten, it would be easy for me to dehumanize these girls and say things like, “Never mind her, she is a b*tch and you should stay away from her”. But remember, we are talking about sweet little so-and-so or adorable what’s-her-face, girls that I know and love and care about. So I can’t say that, nor should I. That’s someone else’s little girl and, just like I would want another parent to be able to see the sweet kid behind the newly estrogenized creature that is my daughter were she to do something mean, I have to try to do the same for her friends, enemies, and frenemies. As to how successfully I am carrying this out, all I can say is that I’m trying.
A parting thought, from the wise Glennon Doyle (you guys all know she is my favorite):
“Horseshoes are better than circles. Leave space. Always leave space. Horseshoes of friends > circles of friends. Life can be lonely. Stand in horseshoes.
I think it can take years for us to unlearn the social hierarchy we find ourselves caught up in during our teen years. I think some people never unlearn it, and continue to create drama and circles, gossip and outcasts. If I am to be honest, I think that one of the reasons that I self-identify as an introverted, slightly awkward, party-averse kind of gal is because of some of my own baggage that I carry from growing up and coming of age. I can tell you that I am all of those things about myself and it protectively excludes me from being subject to any pecking order that some person or group may try to impose on me.
But I like the idea of horseshoes instead of circles, and I am trying to teach this concept to my daughter. I would join a horseshoe. Maybe not if it was a big horseshoe party because, you know, baby steps.
I don’t know if hearing this message from me will be as powerful as the need to fit in within her peer group, but it’s worth a try. And maybe, just maybe, if we all do it, do you think it is possible for us to raise a kinder, more inclusive generation of girls?
Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m going to try.