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.
Many guys who have been in long-term relationships will, sooner or later, find themselves staring down the barrel of the following question:
Do these pants make my butt look fat?
According to male comedians, this is a very stressful problem. You’re not sure how to answer this question without either lying or starting a fight. It may even feel like a huge, manipulative bid for forced compliments and you’re not sure how to handle being put in this position.
Well, I’m here to help.
You see, I think what we have here is a male/female communication problem. For whatever reason, men tend to speak directly whereas women deal in subtleties. While you think it’s a loaded question, we’re not actually trying to set you up.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t wrong answers. Here are a few examples, followed by our likely emotional response:
Do these pants make my butt look fat?
1- “No, that bowl of ice cream you scarf down every night makes you look fat.”
(You bastard, calling me fat! What about you cramming down cheeseburgers while you sit on your farty butt playing Call of Duty all day!? How DARE you judge ME? Stupid photoshopped magazine women…)
2- You get all nervous and scared before saying, “Umm… no, umm… you look fine.”
(He didn’t even look! Why is he so freaked out? He obviously thinks I’m a hideous whale and now he’s LYING to me about it. He’s probably lying about EVERYTHING ELSE TOO.)
3- Without even looking, you say “I don’t know. Whatever. I don’t know anything about fashion.”
(This is obviously important to me, yet he can’t take 30 seconds out of his day to give me his honest opinion. Just like how he doesn’t care about what color we paint the living room. He’s not invested in me or our relationship.)
Okay, so this seems like a trap. No matter whether you say yes, no, or I don’t care, you’re still bound to be wrong.
But here’s the thing: women who ask this question don’t actually want you to evaluate their figure.
See, women’s fashion is infinitely complicated. We’re always trying to strike a delicate balance between looking like we just stepped off a Mormon compound or looking like we charge by the hour.
We want to wear clothes that are flattering, but may not be sure whether we can pull an outfit off, so we want a second opinion. We don’t want to walk outside looking terrible, but also don’t want to be insulted. So…
We don’t ask:
Am I fat?
Do these pants make me look fat?
The difference is subtle, yet important. We’re giving you a pants parachute. We’re saying, “Go ahead and tell me if I shouldn’t wear this, but definitely blame it on the pants.”
To illustrate, I’d like to share an example of someone answering this question perfectly. Granted, it was a girl, which meant she held a huge advantage in navigating female psychology.
I was attending college in Los Angeles at the time, getting ready for a party. I had put on a silver-sequined skirt and kept studying myself in the mirror, unsure of whether or not it was working for me.
So, I decided to ask my roommate Ellen what she thought…
Me: Ellen, could you please come over here a minute and give me your opinion? I want to wear this skirt to Sara’s party but I’m not sure if it looks good on me or not. What do you think?
Ellen gets a real serious look on her face before walking around me in a circle, carefully evaluating every angle of the skirt.
Ellen: Hmm. Okay, you know what? I HATE that skirt!
Me: Umm.. okay.
Ellen: Because that skirt is doing HORRIBLE things to you. It’s making it look like you have a BIG SQUARE ASS, but you definitely DO NOT HAVE a big square ass, so I’m not sure how it’s doing it.
She walks around me a couple more times.
Ellen (looking angry): You know what? Take off that skirt and give it to me right now!
I take it off, wondering what’s she’s planning on doing next.
Ellen grabs the skirt, marches over to the trash can and chucks it inside. Slamming down the lid, she says, “I NEVER WANT TO SEE THAT SKIRT AGAIN. That skirt was INSULTING YOU. It was taking your nice figure and making it LOOK LIKE ABSOLUTE CRAP.”
And then she stomped off, leaving me giggling while looking for something more flattering to wear.
Now, you see how she did that? She let me know I looked horrible in that skirt and should never, ever wear it out in public, without hurting my feelings one bit. Because she blamed it all on the skirt.
That’s the trick. I hope this helps.
One note of caution, however: I don’t recommend throwing away your significant other’s clothes. This was a bold (though highly entertaining) move that would be too risky for most guys to attempt.
Being a parent teaches you a lot about human psychology. Toddlers, for example, think the world revolves around them.
I’m not trying to be critical here, because this is a normal stage of kid development. It’s not malicious, they just live in a self-focused universe where everything is one giant movie starring them as the main character with everyone else in a supporting role only existing to advance the plot.
Sometimes this causes a breakdown in communication, like when I ask my husband about his day at work and he can’t answer because our four-year-old daughter Brontë keeps interrupting with, “I DIDN’T GO TO WORK, I’VE BEEN PLAYING ALL DAY!”
And sometimes, it can be downright hilarious.
Take, for example, the surreal confusion that recently ensued when our two-year-old daughter Bridget was wandering around the house, looking for me.
It went like this:
Bridget (wandering around): Mommy? Mama?
Brontë (from the next room): I’m not mommy, Bridget. I’m “Brontë.”
Brontë (walking in): I’m NOT mommy. I’M JUST ANOTHER KID.
Bridget (looking around): Mommy?
Brontë (speaking slowly as she puts her hands on Bridget’s shoulders): LISTEN TO ME, Bridget… I’m NOT your mom. I’m your SISTER. My name is “BRONTË.”
Bidgie blinks and Brontë throws her arms in the air before stomping off and grumbling, “HOW does she not know this by now??”
Brontë was so frustrated by her sister’s cluelessness, she even looked a little scared. Like she was pondering whether or not her baby sister actually had a screw loose.
And when I explained that Bridget was talking to me, Brontë only looked more scared. Like maybe everyone in the house, except her, had lost their mind. Because we were clearly both there for the whole conversation where Bridget couldn’t recognize her own family members, so how is mom not understanding how serious this is?
I couldn’t help laughing, which only made things worse.
Being a parent is a little like being a social scientist. You’re an anthropologist studying a strange tribe of lawless pygmies, trying to uncover why they need to take a single bite of every piece of fruit in the basket or rub spaghetti sauce into their hair.
Or you’re a psychologist, studying how the human brain behaves before all the rationalizations and social conditioning. You figure out, for example, that two-year-olds feel compelled to scream “NO!” when asked any question.
Doesn’t matter what it is. They’ll scream “NO!” when you ask if they want water, then cry in frustration when you take the water away. You give it back, only to have them push it away and scream “NO!” again and again.
You ask if they want candy, just to see if they’ll break down, and it won’t work. They’ll just scream NO, right before throwing a massive fit about Not Having Candy. These kinds of constant protests about anything and everything make getting through your day kind of hard.
Well eventually, most parents figure out how to get around the “NO” thing by offering their kid the choice between two acceptable options…
Instead of: Do you want to get dressed? (NO!)
You say: Do you want to wear the red pants or the blue ones? (Hmm, the blue!)
It works like a charm, because it really all comes down to control. The kid wants to feel as though he or she has some say in what happens to them. Offer them a choice, and suddenly they’ll forget that refusing to get dressed is a third alternative.
Strangely enough, this trick will work on adults as well.
My two-year-old daughter has personified the warring factions of her psyche and is literally working out her issues using imaginary friends.
Kids are concrete thinkers. They are literalists who imagine all manner of abstractions as physical beings. Everything unknown is magic and The Dark, or disquieting unknown, is the perfect breeding ground for magic of any sort. Fears and anxieties become monsters… nocturnal monsters that can hide under your bed.
Brontë lives in a world bursting with monsters, but also has a strong coterie of imaginary stuffed animal and doll friends. She makes them talk, giving them unique temperaments and catch phrases.
Within her inner circle are a number of distinct personalities, roughly corresponding to Freud’s model of the psychic apparatus.
Don’t be fooled by how adorable Pink Bear looks in his little pink hoodie. He is pure chaos. He jumps on the bed, knocking everything over. He scrambles up into the kitchen cabinets to sneak honey. He pulls all of Brontë’s clothes out of her dresser and dumps them around her room.
Walk into Brontë’s room to see all the books knocked out of her bookshelf into piles on the floor? “Pink Bear did it!” she will say.
Pink Bear will take off whenever he feels like it, living by the pleasure principle alone. Pink Bear will unwind toilet paper all over the place. He will make a mess, just to do it. He’s a rebel without a cause.
Sometimes he even locks Brontë’s baby sister in the bathroom. Pink Bear is clearly a bad influence.
Brontë’s Superego is embodied by “Punzel,” the princess doll. She has long blonde hair and always wears beautiful dresses. She is pretty: her hair is pretty, her face is pretty, her clothes are pretty, and all of her things are pretty. She likes to ride horses and eat cupcakes. She is friends with all other the other princess dolls and likes to invite them to princess parties.
Punzel is everything we expect her to be, as well as everything we want little girls to be. She wears frilly dresses, hosts tea parties, and talks in a pretty, soft voice. She never gets angry, never says anything ugly, and never, absolutely ever, sneaks honey out of the kitchen cabinets. She often finds herself in distress and needs rescuing, but that comes with the territory of being a glamorous princess.
Punzel does, however, sometimes come into conflict with Pink Bear. She disapproves of his mess-making and general barbarian tendencies, whereas Pink Bear thinks Punzel is a prissy little goodie two-shoes with no backbone.
At story time, which is Brontë’s favorite nightly ritual, Punzel and Pink Bear will often jockey for position next to Brontë as a book is being read. They both want to see the pictures, but don’t want to look at each other’s stupid face.
Chief among Brontë’s inner circle is Minnie. She is a Minnie Mouse puppet blanket and Brontë’s constant companion.
Minnie knows how to balance her public persona with a good dose of merrymaking, but also has a wild side. She will throw tantrums, draw pictures of poo, blow indignant raspberries, grab books in her mouth and throw them, and even try to bite the other animals when angry enough.
Most of her antics, however, are motivated by her desire to keep the other imaginary friends in line. When Pink Bear and Punzel are disrupting story time with constant bickering, Minnie Mouse tells them to “SHUT UP” and points out where each of them needs to sit. She can be a little bossy, but without her level-headed mediation, all hell would break loose. Someone has to step up.
In Brontë’s imaginary pantheon of psychic dilemmas, there even exists a shadow figure. Meet Orange Bear, the traitor.
See that gentle grin? Those reassuring eyebrows lifted in the middle in a way that suggests harmless benevolence? Don’t believe them. Those eyebrows are a lie.
Brontë thought Orange Bear was her friend, but he was entrusted with the sacred duty of protecting her from monsters at night. He looks big and tough, so one night when she was telling me all about the scary night monsters that sneak into her room, I reassured her that Orange Bear was there to keep her safe.
The next morning, she stomped out of her room, disgusted, while dragging Orange Bear behind her. With utter disdain, she summarily dumped Orange Bear in the hallway.
Confused, I started dragging him back into her room and she had a fit. “NO!” she screamed, “NO ORANGE BEAR!”
“You don’t want Orange Bear in your room? He keeps the monsters out,” I said.
“HE DO NOT,” she shouted, “He let monsters IN my room!” And with that, she banished Orange Bear forever.
Brontë considers loyalty a great virtue. Betrayal will not be tolerated. Orange Bear’s transgression was unforgivable, and to this day, Orange Bear is not allowed to step foot into Brontëland.
Technically, the Shadow figure is an element of Jungian psychology, not Freudian. I find this gratifying, since I’m fonder of Jung than Freud. Perhaps this entire schema should be revised in terms of Jungian archetypes. Let’s see… Punzel would be the princess. Pink Bear is the outlaw, and Minnie is the mentor?
Whoever thought that child’s play is frivolous? Seems fraught with emotional drama to me. Next time your kids (or any kids) are acting stuff out with their dolls (or “action figures” if they are boys, because obviously boys play with “action figures”), pay attention. You might be surprised by how often inner turmoil is personified into concrete characters.