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




We have recently had a most challenging child at school: very, very bright, and struggling very hard to self-soothe during adjustments or transitions.  Any transitions at all, including things that the child wanted to do, like get out his lunch and eat a cookie, caused crying.

What I have learned from this child: patience, empathy, respect for hard work, and also, when the child can be calm, it is his brain which does the most to help him.  Not that a lap, or a hug, or a empathetic look or remark does not help him calm down, a lot.  But, ultimately, it is when his mind is engaged, when he is intrigued or fascinated or curious or observant or amused, and his brain is working, that he is the most calm, during turbulent times.

This does not mean that we try to distract him with flashing lights and funny clowns, but calmly demonstrate something intriguing, and sit back.  We model our own enjoyment, and invite.

There has been a lot for me to learn in watching this process unfold.



Sometimes you need a new frame (=context).  A new point of view.  To see things from another angle.

My husband bought me some rain boots for Christmas.  The cute ones with flowers didn’t fit, so I got the leather ones.  Kinda cowboy-ish, but water proof, which is the point.  I love them.  They are great for mowing wet grass, walking on wet playgrounds, all things wet, which, In the mountains, is a lot of the time.  They are really comfy; no blisters, ever.

To me, they look very functional, like leather work gloves, and not fashionable at all.  But, one day, I wore them with a dress.  I wanted to wear the dress, and it was raining.  And I am a preschool teacher, not a model.

And got lots of compliments because: boots are fashionable.  Who knew?  Now I can wear them all the time, with anything.

As usual, this is a metaphor, as I certainly am minimally gifted in fashion.

Reframing, or redefining, is something I find myself doing, or attempting to do, with young children.  With boots, it seemed that, if boots are fashionable, I can wear them with a dress.

In Positive Discipline, we say that children’s “bad behavior” is an attempt at getting real needs met: needs for belonging and connection.  But, because they have not been alive very long, they are not always good at getting their needs met in appropriate ways.  And they, often cannot even express their needs.  So, we need to be the grown-ups (sorry!) and try to see thing from a different angle.  A new frame, or lens.  And maybe from their point of view. 🙂

We cannot change other people, only ourselves. Young children are irrational, often, and cannot explain themselves well, at times, or clearly.  And that is okay; it is one of the things we enjoy about them.  (I asked a 2 year old to repeat something her grandmother told me: “Where did your Yaya say you got those pretty curls?” Answer: “Poopypants.” This falls under : “I am not a performing dog, thanks.”)

So, instead of leaping to conclusions about motivations in young children, some open-ended questions can be very helpful for re-framing.

First, take a deep breath, and try to suspend your reaction for 20 seconds.  Long sigh.

Try these: ” How did that make you feel?” (“Did you like that?”); “Let’s see if we can find something good in this.”; “Would you like to try that again?”; “Is there something you want to ask me?” (in response to a demand; phrased poorly.); “What could you try next time so that this doesn’t happen?”; “I am not available.  I can help you (after you, when you, when I…).”; “THAT is not available; (the baby is using it, she has it). You can ask her to give it to you when she is done.”; “Next time…(I want you to wait until I am done to talk).”; “Say some more …(about what is going on; child is upset); (When child makes a mistake, but was trying) “Thank you for taking a risk.”; “If I were you ( I would walk away, find my pajamas).”; (The words “choose, decide, pick, act” puts the responsibility on the child, where it should be:) “I see you chose to leave your raincoat at home”; “I noticed you decided to let your sister use that first.” “I wonder why you are picking to cry instead of using your words?” “How did you decide to act when she hit you?”; “You decide, or I’ll decide.” (Two choices); “Please make a decision.”; “Thank you for telling me, but this is not a choice/option.” (Response to : “But I don’t WANT to…….”); (I can’t find my shoes) “It sounds like you have a problem to solve.” (said, please, with no sarcasm, but with trust that they can solve it.);(Alternatively) Parent: “I want you to help me solve a problem; I don’t like dirty clothes on the floor in my house.” (again, not said in anger, but in a spirit of shared interest.); “Do you want some help, or do you want more time?” (when there is more time to have!!”); “I don’t like what I just heard.  What is another way to tell me/ask me?”; “Make a picture in your mind.” (visualize how to do something before trying it.); “Touch him gently” (tell child what TO do instead of what NOT to do.): “Walking feet.”;  (When child resists) “Thank you for letting me know you need help; I will help you_______”; (Only ask once, then act, without talking, or simply saying:) “Thank you for letting me know you need help. I will help you (put that away, let go of the baby, give me the scissors, hold my hand in the parking lot.”); “I would love for you to be here, but I need you to stop “whining/crying/complaining….)”; and, many times: “Do you need a hug?” or “I need a hug after that.”

There.  From many, many sources.  And remember, not talking, or attempting to solve, and giving a “Hmmm” might get you to a deeper level.  Sometimes complaining, or crying, or yelling is just an attempt to connect; especially if it has worked before.  Or it may be an invitation to solve a problem themselves “”Where are my shoes?”; “Hmmmm”; “Oh, they are in my room!”

Less jumping to conclusions, less talking, often, more questions.