My dear daughter had her first experience with mean girls the other day. It had me feeling sick to my stomach as I was forced to remembered my days of being bullied and dealing with mean girls. I tried to remain calm, but every inch of me wanted to jump up and scream "I'll fight them for you baby girl", but let’s face it, me as a 30 year old mom beating up a couple of 6 year old girls is not realistic. Then there was the fact that if I took it personally she'd take it personally.
We talked over what happened in more detail, what does "they were mean to me" actually look like. We also talked about ugliness in actions being a heart problem, something inside of them that was ugly and that it had nothing to do with her. I wanted to emphasize the point that a few mean girls doesn't mean the M is worth anything less than when she walked in that day. We talked over some of her options, and the pros and cons of those choices. At one point M asked me if she had permission to be mean back to them. I tried not to cringe at her question and calmly discuss the pros and cons of that choice just as we had for her other choices. Ultimately she decided that would not be a good choice.
Then I took to Facebook to get some advice from family and friends on how they deal with bullies and mean girls. It seems the "being mean back" approach that my little girl had ruled out was the dominating philosophy. Let me tell you two different stories about the two kids who picked on me the most during my elementary years.
The I'm going to label Z as a bully, He had it in for me from the moment I walked into 2nd grade. For some reason he hated everything about me and making me cry was his life mission. I had a very good teacher who was active in shutting him down during class, but recess was awful. I wasn't the only kid he was mean to, there was a small handful of us and we formed our own little “band of misfit” friendship.
I was so excited when 3rd grade came and I was no longer in the same class as him. Unfortunately he still sought me out in the playground. My best friend was in my same class that year, he was a boy my mom had nannied since we were both 3 years old. Being in the same class as me made him suddenly aware of the bully's treatment of me. He'd always coach me "don't cry, he's only in it to make you cry." or "ignore him and don't make a big deal out of it". Both those actions worked for a while until one day the bully caught me alone without my band of misfits or my best friend to give me false bravery. It resulted in him actually hitting me in the face.
When we returned to class after recess my best friend could tell something was up. I spilled the story through big tears, and the next recess my best friend marched straight up to the bully and punched him square in the nose and told him never to hit girls. That landed my best friend and the bully a trip to the office and a few months relief for me.
Over 4th and 5th grade the bully was only mean if we were up close, but never sought me out, making "walking away" super easy. Then 6th grade came and once again the bully and I shared a class, fortunately my best friend was in the class too. The two of them regularly got in fist fights as my friend kept standing up for me. Then one day as we were lined up after recess waiting for our teacher the bully slapped me across the face, I had attempted to ignore him and he was going to get my attention. I saw my friend push off from the wall to come to my defense, I knew his dad had had it with the fighting and he'd be in big trouble if he got in one more fight.
I acted on impulse! My fists clenched at my side and the next thing I knew my knuckles were in his nose. He bled everywhere! It was all over... That’s how you all would like the story to end, but it actually didn’t end there. The bully never bothered me again, but all the “cool” kids suddenly loved me. I suddenly gained a reputation as a bad ass. Some of my misfit friends who were in other classes stopped being my friend and assumed I had become a bully and fallen in with the "cool" kids who had pestered us for so long. It was both a victory and a loss at the same time. After 6th grade we moved up to middle school and I never saw that boy again.
Now let me tell you about my experience with a mean girl. She was in my class all through elementary school. She was popular in our grade and had fans in the grade above us, so that just made her all the more awesome in everyone’s eyes. The boys all liked her and she always had a boyfriend that she held hands with and stole cheek kisses behind the slide with at recess. She looked down on me in my heathen ways. I didn't brush my hair. I didn't sneak make-up on. I didn't want to hold boys hands. I wanted to run and jump and play during recess not talk and slowly walk the length of the playground so the boys could watch me.
She frequently pointed out how unstylish my hand me down clothes were. She made fun of the games I created for my band of misfits to play at recess. She enjoyed getting the other kids to laugh at me. She was all around awful to the misfits and since I was the leader of that pack I got the brunt of it. One day I saw a silly TV commercial that used the old adage “catching more bees with honey than vinegar” so from that day on I was nice to her (a tactic I tried with the boy as well, but only made everything worse). I was kind to her whenever we interacted. I complimented her clothes or hair and she’d always snark at me and make fun of me, but I never stopped being nice to her. It was hard and it was a move that upset my friends.
Then the summer before 5th grade a new girl moved next to me. She was new and my neighbor so I instantly adopted her as my friend. We were even lucky enough to be in the same class. As school started though it became apparent she was more of a “cool” kid than a “misfit” like me. She and the mean girl sat next to each other and became instant friends. She never stood up for me when the other girl was mean, but she didn’t ditch me either. That year the mean girl and I spent more time together than I ever wanted to. She seemed only to tolerate my presence for my neighbor’s sake.
The next summer my neighbor moved again as her dad got transferred and the mean girl and I no longer had any reason to spend time together, so we didn’t!
Fast forward 6 years to my junior prom. I danced away like a total goof ball with the boy who would become my husband. I took a break and stepped to the side of the floor the catch my breath. I looked over and to my surprise the mean girl was walking up to me, smiling. Not the sneaky smile she used to have after she’d make fun of me, but a real genuine smile. She greeted me with a hug to my great surprise then said the following to me.
“I can’t believe we ever stopped being friends. You were such a sweet girl and one of the best friends I’ve ever had in one of the toughest times of my life. No matter how mean I was out of my pain you were always kind to me and never stopped being my friend. You were so cool in a weird unique sort of way, that just made people enjoy being with you. I wish we had been in the same class in 6th grade so we could have stayed better friends.”
I was stunned. I was stunned by her attitude toward me. I was stunned by what she said. I was stunned that she had considered me to be a friend. She was so popular, so well liked, it never occurred to me her life could have been anything less than perfect. I never thought my kindness meant anything to her. It all had an impact I was never aware of, and never would have been aware of if she hadn’t said it straight to my face.
There are many more ways to stand up to a bully then to resort to their level and return hate for hate, or violence for violence. I stood up to the bully by speaking the only language he understood. But I stood up to the mean girl by not letting her rob me of my spirit, my happiness, or my kindness. Bullies and mean kids don’t all fit into one mold so the solutions aren’t cookie cutter either.