“Go and kick Jessica when she’s not looking. She’s not our best friend anymore.”
I overheard this in a playground the other day.
Three girls. An unusual dynamic. Three friends.
One girl is slightly older, slightly more in control.
The other two more followers, both the same age.
“Kick her. Now.”
The older girl in knee high leather boots and a denim skirt flicked her glossy brown hair as she said it, the girl she was talking to peered at her through slightly grubby glasses.
“She’s not our best friend anymore. We don’t like her. She’s mean and her hair is too short.”
Like teenagers, already, like mean girls at the tender ages of just four and five.
Two of these girls are aged four and the third – a five-year-old – and here they are talking about “best friends” and judging each other on their looks. I was shocked.
And even more shocking – one of them was my four-year-old daughter.
I watched her glance at me with her golden-flecked eyes wondering what to do.
Should she kick the other girl? Should she do what her friend wanted? She almost pleaded with me to intervene and I did. Within minutes I snaffled her up, lecturing her five-year-old playmate about friendships before I whisked my daughter home far from the world of playground bullying and mean girls.
Mean girls before they even start school.
My two older children are boys – a six-year-old and an eight-year-old – and while yes this stereotypes massively what I have found is that their friendships are different.
Their friendships are less intense, less hurtful. They play as a pack, with whoever is around and if one boy runs off to join another there doesn’t seem to be any hurt feelings or sense of alienation they just accept that at that moment the other boy wanted to play with the other kid and that they too should find someone else to play with. No feeling hurt, no friendships broken.
They don’t look too far below the surface; they accept the other boys for who they are at that moment, what they are doing right then and there.
The girls’ friendships seem less clean cut to me, less open and a heck of a lot more frightening.
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Canadian research shows that children as young as three can become victims of bullying, they call it relational aggression” or “covert bullying.”
While it’s easy to dismiss it as just kids being kids the long-term effects can be powerful.
Michelle Anthony is co-author of the book Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four steps to bully-proof girls in the early grades. She writes that girls around the ages of four and five in trying to be important—to have power— take actions that seem “mean.”
“But, their “mean” actions often stem from the desire to fit in and to find their own power, as opposed to taking purposeful actions to put someone on the outs” she says.
She says – also to stereotype – that “girls more often use social power to have influence over their peers, and boys more often use physical intimidation to have power over their peers. Some people would argue that the physical blow from a boy bully might be more acute, might be more dramatic, might be more dangerous. But what research has shown is that girls’ relational aggression tends to involve more people, and it tends to last longer, and in that way is just as devastating for the girls who experience it.”
As a parent what you want to ensure is that your child isn’t just not on the receiving end, but also isn’t on the mean girl end.
Adolescent and Child Psychologist Michael Carr Gregg told Mamamia to start there were a few simply ways you could make the first steps towards helping your daughter not become that girl:
1. Teach them to be kind and praise them when they exhibit kindness.
2. If you hear someone being mean, stop what you are doing, describe what happened and tell them why it was wrong.
3. Model kindness in your own life.
In the meantime I am being vigilant, watching my daughter’s friendships and keeping an eye on just what goes on in the playground, as nobody really wants the mean girls around.