So, yesterday I took the girls to the local park to get some exercise, never realizing what mean-girl psychodramas were about to unfold.
Bridget immediately begged to be pushed on the swings, but I told her to GO PLAY. All morning they’d been chewing up the couch like overwrought labradors who needed to work off some adrenalin.
Which would never happen as long as I was still holding their hands. I settled onto a park bench to keep a loose watch on them. Bridget began testing her mettle against a miniature rock wall as Brontë sized up the crowd for potential friends.
I tried to get in a little reading, pausing occasionally to remind Bridget that the bucket of sand she was hauling off wasn’t hers. I smiled, noticing that Brontë had joined a group of girls, before returning to my book.
There were six little girls in the pack, of varying hem-lengths, braids and ponytails. They were all running back and forth when the phone rang. It was John, who always calls me during his lunch hour.
We were chatting about some server issue he was having at work when Brontë came running up with this little Johnny Depp looking kid wearing a comedy T-shirt. She crawled under the table as he blinked at her from beneath his shaggy brown bob. He seemed nice enough, so I ignored them while telling my husband about finding another baby lizard in the living room.
And that’s when Johnny Depp’s mom tapped me on the shoulder.
I politely hung up to face her.
“Umm, I wanted you to know that those girls have been bullying your daughter. “
“Yes. They were chasing her and trying to throw sand in her eyes. They were talking about throwing grass at her too, but the tall one with the ponytail was saying it was mean. I stepped in and told them they couldn’t.”
“Oh… wow. THANK YOU. I didn’t see ANY of that. How did I miss that??”
“Well, the one with the two French braids and the pink dress was the ringleader and I heard her say ‘not now, her MOM is looking,’ so they were only doing it whenever your back was turned.”
My face felt hot. “Thank you so much for letting me know, because I had NO idea.”
She nodded. I turned to look at Brontë, who was staring at the ground.
I don’t worry too much about Bridget on the playground. She’s the type who’ll roll her eyes at anyone who has a problem with her before promptly ignoring them. It’s a quality that will serve her well in this dog-eat-dog world.
But Brontë… this hurt her. She wants so desperately to connect with other people that she leaps at them without defenseless. Rejection trips her and casual cruelty simply doesn’t compute. She just keeps trying, as though it must be a language barrier.
But what to do?
It was over now, and she was playing with Johnny Depp. Do I talk to the girls? Do I talk to the moms, who were all sitting together in short shorts and baseball caps at another picnic table, looking mildly as though they’d just smelled a fart?
“Do you think their moms saw what was happening? It was right in front of them.” I asked Mini-Depp’s mom.
“I don’t know, but I doubt they’d do anything if you told them. I hate to say it, but it’s always those cliquish little mom groups who have the bullying kids.”
“Well, I guess mean women were all mean girls once,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “I don’t get it, cause my kids would never get away with acting like that.”
“OH, I’d spank the crap out of my boys if I caught them throwing sand in some kid’s face and they KNOW it. These girls are brutal. That’s why I always played with boys growing up.”
I chuckled, thrown by her casual admission of spanking her kids, while resisting the urge to admit how I played with the boys too. It felt traitorous to spell out, like I’d be one of those women who brags about being more guy-like. As though it’s more evolved.
But I knew exactly what she meant. Much as I loved the girl friends I had (and love my female friends today), boys were just… easier. You knew exactly how they felt about you and didn’t always have to scan their expressions for micro-hints of betrayal, just in case.
Hell, once I even made friends with a boy after splitting his head open. He had thrown an orange at my cousin’s mouth, on purpose, cutting her lip open against her braces, and I had chased after him with a stick to avenge her honor. Once he’d gotten too far away, I’d flung the stick at him.
He ducked, so it twacked him in the skull, which required twenty-two stitches to fix.
And though his mom never forgave me, he became my buddy the very next day. It was a little disorienting for me at the time, given how one misplaced comment could make a girl your arch-nemesis for life, but I guess he felt I’d acted reasonably under the circumstances.
Then I remembered how that red-haired, doctor’s daughter was always walking up to me on the playground, while I was minding my own business, to ask me questions about my clothes while smirking with her friends:
Where did you get them, she would ask. They’re awfully dirty. You look really poor. I’ve never even seen clothes like that. How can you wear them?
Her pack of friends would giggle as I ran away.
I turned to Brontë. “This park is for EVERYONE. You go where you want and you don’t let snotty little bullies push you around.“
“YEAH,” Mini-Depp yelled. “It’s for EVERYONE!”
Grabbing her hand, we walked across the park and over to the table of moms, as their little girls smacked a teddy bear against a nearby tree.
Holding Brontë’s hand tighter, I walked in a slow circle around the moms until the girls noticed our presence. They paused the beatdown to find out what I would do next, the bear’s defeated glassy-eyes watching the ground as the ringleader held him by a broken foot.
I looked over at the girl in a pink dress and braids and she looked back, dropping the bear on his head.
Then she tilted her chin, clasped her hands, and spread the biggest, sugariest, most innocent smile across her face.
I stared back at her as though she were ten seconds from evisceration. I stared until her friends watched all the smugness disappear.
And then I sat down at the table of moms and stared at them too.
One of the moms popped up, cheerfully saying, “It’s time to go, kids!” They all packed up their stuff and left.
Maybe they thought I was crazy, but who cares? Looking crazy is an underrated move in the urban toolbox. Even I’m not even sure what I was trying to demonstrate, except what body language, alone, can accomplish.
Brontë squeezed my hand hard, saying, “You’re the best, mom. You protect me.”
We hugged as I thought about how in the hell to prepare her for stuff like this, how to teach her to stand up for herself without becoming a monster herself.
Because all the classic advice, that stuff about bullies just being insecure cowards in need of more approval, is truly unhelpful.
It’s just the right thing to say. It’s the horoscope that rings true because it’s so vaguely universal: we’re all insecure at that age. We all have psychological defenses and the need to fit in.
These bullies were just alpha gorillas in lacy skirts, chest-bumping the competition right under the radar. Ruling through exclusion and fear.
But running to authority figures every time someone offends you gets you pegged as a crybaby. It wouldn’t work much longer.
Being nice to the bully doesn’t work either, and it just opens you up to further humiliation. You’re actually better off windmilling your arms until you don’t seem worth the trouble.
And we all secretly know it.
“Some people are jerks, Brontë,” I began. “Some are nice and some are mean. Some are usually nice but are having a bad day, and others… are just nasty. You can’t always tell from looking at them.”
“And you know what? Some grownups are nice and some grownups are mean too. You just have to find out and then be friends with the nice ones. But don’t let the mean ones know you are scared.”
“I was scared,” she said.
“That’s okay, but don’t tell them.”
“Next time I’ll tell them they’re a bunch of MANIACS!”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Or make a joke at their expense. But never be the mean one first.”
We walked home as I silently questioned the wisdom of teaching my daughter to mock other children.
The issue seemed much simpler to my husband, whose face paled when I later related the story:
“So, we’ve got to teach her how to throw a good punch, then.” he said.
“NO, we can’t teach her to punch them. She’ll get into trouble.”
“You can’t *really* get into trouble before you’re 18.”
I sighed. “Look… Yes, I’ll admit that seeing Brontë smack that girl in the face would’ve been awesome. But we can NOT teach her to get into fistfights.”
“Because she will get into serious trouble. She’ll be suspended and get talked to and be considered a troubled kid. Especially as a girl. They’ll think she has real behavioral issues. We can’t teach her to solve problems with her fists.”
“I mean… I get where you’re coming from. I was trying to teach her to not look scared and be confident and even insult them back if they keep bothering her. Maybe we should remind her to make sure no other grownups are listening?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Argh. I just don’t know the best way to teach girls how to navigate the female jungle. It’s a much nastier place then most guys realize.
Anyone else have ideas?