Bullying Starts Early: Grandma and the Mean Girl Dolls

In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, I share this story. It illustrates a total fail on my part to seize a teachable moment with my granddaughter. Luckily, she has an awesome mother, who works hard to prevent bullying.

My granddaughter has three American Girl dolls and a fourth doll that looks like the others but is not authentic. When she was in second grade, she insisted I play a special game with her involving her American Girl dolls: Julie, Ivy and Isabelle. Each of the American Girl dolls comes with her own back-story. They had lovely outfits and carefully groomed hair. These were my granddaughter's characters.

My doll was Renata, the American Girl "wannabe" purchased from Sam's Club several years earlier to gauge the level of her interest in these dolls before committing big bucks to buy one. Her hair stood on end and she wore outfits rejected for the other dolls. More importantly, her back-story was two words -- she's mean.

I know this game was a second grader's effort to sort out how girl relationships worked, but it disturbed me. I suggested Renata might have had her reasons for being mean. I wondered aloud if she would have been nicer if the other girls included her and treated her kindly. But my granddaughter, who is a kind and inclusive child by nature, already knew how this girl thing worked. There was no room for understanding Renata's motivation. As I was told whenever I tried, "She's just mean and that's all."

There were numerous variations of the plot but the basic storyline was consistent. The two newest (and therefore most valuable dolls), Isabelle and Ivy, were good friends. Julie used to be Renata's friend, but when given the chance to raise her social status by joining the popular dolls, she abandoned her. Then Renata was mean, which justified her rejection.

This painful plot must have replicated what my granddaughter had observed on the school playground or at summer camp. The game was a way to understand the rules of female social behavior. But in third grade, the plot thickened. She stopped playing the game with dolls and started to figure out how to navigate the scenario in real time.

Because she's thoughtful and a sharer of information, she confessed to her mother that there was a "pay to play" scheme going on during lunch recess. Two popular girls had started a club. To join, you had to bring them a toy from home or give them part of your lunch. Some of her friends, eager to be included, complied with the rules of the game. My granddaughter thankfully turned down the opportunity and chose to play with girls who were not in the club. But one of her awesome 8-year-old friends was ambivalent. Sometimes she paid. Other times she resisted the allure of these Queen-Bees-in-training, who also told her not to eat all of her lunch because she would get fat. Remember, these were little girls. Boys had not even entered the scene yet. I shuddered to think about what these girls would be doing in middle school.

Most of the parents who found out about this club were distraught. They hadn't imagined they would have to deal with this behavior at such a young age. A teacher also attempted an intervention. But the question remained: Would the behavior stop or would the girls just become more skilled in hiding it from adults?

In dealing with bullying we all tend to make a mistake. We usually focus most of our attention on the targets of bullying, especially on how we can help them avoid being victims. But the Queen Bees maintain their status by controlling the Wannabes, the silent majority of girls who are so worried about becoming a victim of bullying that they are willing to be cruel to avoid that fate. So it is this latter group that must be empowered to stand up for what is right. Teaching them to be true to what they know in their hearts is just and fair is the key. A Queen Bee without worker drones is not very powerful.

In retrospect, I see I played the doll game incorrectly back in second grade. When I focused on Renata and why the other dolls should include her, and when I tried to style her hair or find a better outfit for her to wear, I missed an important opportunity. Instead of empowering Julie to resist the temptation to abandon her friend and curry favor with Isabelle and Ivy, I placed the burden on poor Renata to change her behavior and fit in with the others. Even though I begged my granddaughter's dolls to be nice to Renata so she didn't have to be mean, I missed the teachable moment in that game.

If I could go back and play the game again, I would encourage Julie to stand with Renata. Now my granddaughter is beginning fourth grade and would never play dolls with her grandmother, but I think there is still time to influence her behavior. These nine-year-olds can learn to empower themselves, resist the Queen Bees, and navigate the social scene with kindness rather than cruelty. Hopefully, my granddaughter and her peers will embrace the importance of sisterhood before the Mean Girl games of middle school take over.