I knew this day would come. I was, of course, hoping it never would -- hoping that my daughter would never be mean to someone else's daughter -- but as they say, I wrote the book on girl bullying in elementary school, so I knew that there was a pretty good chance that despite all of my best efforts, one of these days, my girl was gonna act like the mean one. This morning, she told me about it.
Not in a confessional kind of way, mind you. Rather, in a completely casual, half-delighted voice, as she was eating her breakfast and I was at her side packing her lunch, she dropped the, "Guess-what-Mommy-Jessica-said-she-was-going-to-be-in-the-We-Don't Like-Madison-club-also" bomb.
Stomach drop. Head spin. Knees turn to mush.
"What did you say, honey?" I managed to ask.
I had heard her words perfectly clearly and the implications of them hit me straight away. My question was my way of gathering my thoughts -- stalling, if you will. And, of course, hoping that I had heard wrong.
"Jessica said she was going to be in the We-Don't Like-Madison-club also," she repeated, with no trace of guilt or sense of wrongdoing.
The moment I had dreaded had come true. My little girl was part of something very mean and I needed to let her know how unacceptable it was. I refuse to be one of those parents who lets bad behavior go, as long as my child isn't the one being picked on. I won't gloss over bullying as a "rite of passage" or rationalize it as "girls being girls." It's never okay to do nothing about bullying is the mantra I teach to young kids and I had to follow my own words, right?
Yet somehow, I had always pictured having this conversation in a more relaxed moment -- one in which we could pour a cup of cocoa, snuggle on the sofa, and chat for a good hour about the importance of kindness and the values inherent in real friendships. I didn't plan on it happening with just 10 minutes until the school bus arrived. Nor did I expect to have my whole body fail me as I processed her words. Silly me. Heart-to-hearts don't happen by appointment!
So, here's what I did.
First, I told my daughter in clear, plain, simple, no-nonsense terms that having a "We-Don't-Like-Anyone" club is bullying and that it was not okay. Then, I told her that she was to have no part of a club like that -- ever.
She looked at me like I was from a different planet. Then, she tried to explain:
"Oh, no Mom. It's not like that. Madison is the one that is really mean to all of us. That's why we started the club. She's actually the mean one."
A small bit of relief flowed over me. My daughter is not completely anti-social. She is not picking on an innocent victim. No, she is part of a vigilante group seeking revenge for collective injustices. I feel much better.
Actually, I did feel a little bit better knowing that the "delight" I had detected in my daughter's voice earlier was not happiness about hurting Madison, but rather her faulty conclusion that if Madison was being mean, it was okay to be part of a group that excluded her because of her behaviors. I quickly pointed this out to her and used the word "bullying" to explain myself.
"If all of the kids on the bus gang up against Madison and create a club around your dislike of her, that is bullying. It's not OK, no matter what Madison did, to be part of a club like that" I explained.
I was practicing my New Year's resolution to keep my words brief and clear. No more lectures. No giving her the chance to tune me out. Then, my other parenting resolution kicked in: Listen more. I have been reminding myself to Listen First with my kids, before getting upset or jumping to conclusions about their behaviors. A little slow on the draw, I then asked her:
So, what is going on with Madison that is making everyone so upset?
"Nevermind, Mom. It was just a joke," she muttered.
Oh dear. I see I had lost my "listening" opportunity. My daughter was already shutting down and playing the "Just Kidding" card. Young girls, when confronted about mean behavior, often use "just kidding" as a first line of defense. It's a way of making it seem as if the other person is just overreacting. It's a passive aggressive way of deflecting accountability. "Just kidding" is my pet peeve.
"There's nothing funny or joking about having a mean-spirited club. It's not okay. It's bullying behavior and you may not be part of it."
As angry as I was to hear that my daughter was part of this situation, I was still kicking myself for not hearing her out first. Hours later, I am still re-playing the tape in my mind and questioning my words. On the other hand, I reassure myself with this: I listened late, but I communicated my values early.
I wish I could always stay perfectly calm and be the June Cleaver of my daughter's dreams, but I feel good about the fact that my daughter has no doubt in her mind about where I stand on the mean girl behavior. I will always be there to support her through tough times and I will never tolerate her creating tough times for someone else.
After a few moments of silence, I got my shot to be a listener after all. My daughter started giving me her laundry list of all the ways Madison had been unkind to the kids on the bus. I empathized. I nodded. I agreed that some of the things Madison had done were wrong. I know that later today, when we have more time for our cocoa-and-conversation, we can get back to specific skills for how to handle some of Madison's behavior. Before getting on the bus and facing the "We-Don't-Like-Madison-club" crowd, however, I knew there were two more things I had to tell my daughter -- thoughts I needed to let sit with her for the day.
The first was a question of empathy. I validated that some of Madison's behaviors sounded pretty mean and I told my daughter that it was okay for her to be upset about them. I went so far as to assure her that she did not have to be Madison's close friend. But I asked her to consider how it might feel to be Madison and to have all of the kids on the bus against her. I told her to imagine what it must be like to have a group of people looking at her, whispering around her, but not talking directly to her.
Second, conscious of the fact that thus far I had told her all of the things she could not do -- like being part of a group whose purpose it was to make someone else feel miserable -- I knew I needed to tell her what to do in the situation. I challenged her to be the (s)hero on the bus -- to be the kid who says to the other "club" members, "Guys, I think what we're doing here is wrong. I know Madison was really mean to us before, but now we're being really mean back and I don't think we should do this anymore."
After suggesting these words, I got the faraway planet look again. I acknowledged that doing the right thing was sometimes scary and really hard, but that continuing to do the wrong thing was even worse. I told her that she had the chance to be a bystander or to be a hero and that after school, I hoped she would tell me which one she chose.
What do you think? How did I do? I've been pondering it all day. Too sophisticated advice for a 3rd grader? Will she have the confidence to stand up for what is right? I hope I have fortified her with the skills to do the right thing and to disentangle herself from this "club." It's one thing to work with other people's children and to role play for possible scenarios they may encounter. It's a much more nerve-racking ballgame to have the day come when your own child is smack dab in the middle of mean girl behavior.
In other words, it's easy to know the right thing to say in theory, but much more challenging to say the right words in the heat of the moment. I hope I came close enough in the 10 minutes that I had. I'll keep you posted.
Signe is the author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. For follow up on this story or to read more of Signe's work on bullying among elementary school aged girls, please visit www.signewhitson.com, Like her on Facebook, or Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.