Helping to Create “Mean Girls”

Several conversations recently came together for me, into a shocking insight.  Now that I have had time to think about it, it is not shocking at all, of course; like so many things.

I was part of several conversations about children (boys) and gun play.  This subject never goes away, and may be a topic for another stream of thought.  Gun violence in this country is a real thing, and effects children and families, but, in this case,  this thread led to something else.

The other thing that never goes away, even in preschool (!!!!) is that of “mean girls”; that is, “social aggression” (as it is called in the literature).  How it appears: boys get mad and punch each other, girls are mean, and the “meanness” just flows in and out, and around, and remains a continual sore in the hearts of these girls.  Not all girls “do” social aggression, some just stay out of it, but, for the ones who do, what fuels it?

For those of us who do preschool, and parents of girls, we know that “talking it out” or asking them to “just walk away” rarely (never?) helps.

What Lynn * said, in one of many follow-up conversations: “Isn’t it strange that physical aggression is (generally) not modeled to these boys, but social aggression is modeled for these girls?” (This seems to be true in the community in which I work; other communities model different things.)  Lynn also said: “Can’t you remember every mean thing that was ever said to you?  I can.”  I can, too.

So, boys play gun play, and punch each other, but there seems to be little lasting damage, and they go back to playing; “getting it out”, or expressing their frontal lobe limits and going on; their dads are not shooting anyone, or punching anyone.

Girls, however, can often hear grown women criticizing each other.  Often.  In my family, it was sarcastically called: “helpful criticism”: “She really shouldn’t wear that color.”; “She should know better than to put on a bathing suit.”; “Does she call that decorating for Christmas?”  So many of us have made comments like this in private, in front of our children.

There is a story I read years ago, on the Internet, in which a mother made such a comment about another mother (something like: “Oh, let’s not have the meeting at her house, it’s always filthy!”) and her child, in the car, started to cry.  “I am sad that you hate yourself, Mom!” The mother is flabbergasted, and asks the child for clarification.  “You said that people who say mean things always feel badly about themselves!”  Um, yea.

So, how much of a stretch is it to go from saying those things in private, to saying them to someone’s face: “I hate you, and you can never come to my birthday party.”  Ow!!!  How could that EVER be okay to say?  And yet, somehow, it is.  And the hurt lingers, and poisons our children and their friends.

So, as in everything else, we have to look at, watch, and listen to ourselves first.

Ow.  And then cut it out.

*Lynn Miller, as very wise person.1-girls-fighting







I have been reading a book on the research of play (“The Play’s the Thing”, E. Jones, G. Reynolds, Teachers College Press). I came across this great description: “The master player is a child who uses materials imaginatively in sustained, complex dramatic play. He is able to negotiate with others to keep the play going, working out social as well as material problems.” (p. 17)

I immediately thought of many children who fit this description, some who struggle with it, what I have read about improv and a lecture I recently listened to by Brene Brown (

These pictures are of some recent “master players” at school. Every year, the 4s and 5s usually come together to create a “master player repertory group.” They go from being 2s and threes, or solo players, and become a pack of wildly creative storytellers, using all loose parts on the playground, all toys, all balls, all climbers as part of the story, which changes minute by minute and includes anyone who is willing and able. A story I overheard from a recent female master player: a boy and a girl barreled outside (the home of the best master play) and said (it was near Halloween), “Let’s be scary things!” The girl was going to be a “scary witch.” The next child who came out was invited to this game, and replied: “I don’t LIKE scary things.” The first girl replied: “Okay, we can be nice witches!” All was now right with the world, and the three ran off together.

Tina Fey, talking about improv, said one of the rules was: “Always say “Yes!” Vivi is a “yes sayer”; she keeps the play going by incorporating new ideas into the mix, trusting in the outcome. She is okay with other children’s input. The children who struggle with play have trouble letting go of control. Who can’t identify with this?

Brene Brown was describing “play” as one of the keys to wholehearted living (the opposite of living in shame). “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.” (Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are). She describes the difference between play and competition: when two bears play, one pins the other, and then jumps up and runs away, to be chased. The goal is for the play to continue.

How can adults foster play? 1) By not exposing young children to too many “adult ideas of play” (as in, adult-created fantasy in books, movies, cartoons). This replaces what a child can think up, which is based on their experiences (“Lets go camping, on a boat, hunting, fishing”; “Let’s be mommy and daddy tigers, bears, aliens, snakes”). 2) By going outside with them, so that they want to be there, but not providing any entertainment, or at least not all the ideas. Play comes out of not knowing what to do. Adult input can limit this. 3) By not “playing” with them (pretend play). This does not mean don’t wrestle, don’t throw balls, don’t blow bubbles, don’t garden, don’t wash the car, don’t go for hikes! Just don’t pretend play, see above. I tell children: “I’m not good at that”, which is true. My time for that is passed, although I hope I use my imagination in other ways every day. (This may be controversial, and that’s okay. This is based on my observations.) 3) Have lots of loose parts and loose time. If play comes out of boredom, let it happen. Just have some “stuff” around to fiddle with.

“Loose parts” are a “new playground” term. Have you driven by beautiful playgrounds with no children in them? I have. Maybe it is because children also need “stuff” to add to their play: sand and water are the favorites, but mulch and mud and tools and buckets and other containers and sticks and rocks and acorns and pine needles and string are all great. Moving and carrying and hiding and finding are all part of many stories. 4) Let go of “clean.” This is harder for some adults than others. It helps if you remember the fun of mud yourself. If not, try to let it go, at least sometimes. 5) Inside, remember the loose parts! The 4s and 5s at school LOVE to dig through the recycling bin and “make things”: picture frames, mouse traps, masks, helmets, maps. Paper plates and toilet paper rolls may be the best inventions on the planet for play. and, Brene Brown would add: 6) Model play: that is, doing something mostly because you enjoy it, whatever it is: cooking, reading, scrapbooking, taking pictures, decorating your house, writing, running, singing. dancing.