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Mean Girls, The Starter Edition

12/10/2011 11:16 am 11:16:28 | Updated Feb 09, 2012

Our daughter startled us at the table one recent night by saying that she and a friend were playing a trick on two of their other friends. When we questioned what this meant, she brightly replied that they were going to make the other girls think they didn't like them for 10 days. We pointed out that being mean to the others would not actually be a trick on the shunned girls, but on our daughter herself, as she would soon discover that she had lost two friends and was left with only the girl who had come up with this scheme. She was baffled by this prediction -- after all, her partner in crime had assured her this would be funny.

She didn't actually have to wait 10 days to find out that she was wrong. That very night, I received an email from the mother of Maeve, one of the targeted girls, gently breaking the news that her daughter wanted to cancel an upcoming play date because of the things my girl and her buddy had said to her that day. My husband and I were horrified: this behavior seemed completely new.

We found ourselves asking a question we'd never before considered. Which feels worse: When your child deals with a Mean Girl or when your child is the Mean Girl?

It was uncharted territory for us. Our kid has always been the one who seeks others to pal around with, the girl who can go into a playground alone and come out of it with a buddy. The idea of her not just being unkind but planning to be was a shock to the system. Thankfully, she was still innocent enough to tell us this story herself, allowing us to the opportunity to talk with her about better ways to treat others.

At breakfast the next morning, I told her about the cancelled play date and how her actions were related, which led to a storm of tears. Even so, there was an upside from a parenting perspective: this was a low-cost lesson. I was pretty sure that she could easily enough repair her friendship with the girls she had been mean to and that, if we consciously maintained a dialogue about how to be good to her peers, all the girls involved would benefit. We began repeating a mantra at school drop-off: The kindest kid is the best kid.

Flash forward two weeks. My daughter and Maeve were swinging from monkey bars together, evidence that all was forgiven if not forgotten. As we stood in the park, Maeve's Mom explained why she had felt it important to alert me to my child's behavior while, at the same time, being so zen about it. It turns out that Maeve, too, had tried on mean girl shoes for a little while in the past. Her mom had been distressed, of course, but she and her husband had done what good parents are supposed to do: they'd faced it head-on, employing a behavior plan to help their child turn it around. Maeve had learned the lesson and now my daughter was learning it herself.

I have to admit that the entire situation caught me off guard because it came so early. I've seen Mean Girls and am familiar with the best-selling book Queen Bees & Wannabees, which discusses the real world equivalent. Beyond that, I've worked with enough middle and high school youth groups over the years to know that a 13 year-old girl with time on her hands and an easy target is one definition of Evil. But I imagined all this drama as starting a little later -- not in first grade.

Granted, basic bullying and exclusion are the oldest childhood traumas in the book. But the more sophisticated behaviors once seen as the domain of adolescence -- triangulation, social manipulation, powerful cliques -- are now routinely being played out as early as Kindergarten. Whether this is a truly new phenomenon, or simply an old problem now getting more of a spotlight, it deserves attention from parents, both those who see it in the children of others and those who see it in their own. I am fortunate that my daughter is still so early in the game of life: I have the time to teach her lessons about kindness, fair play, and good friendship -- before the danger is more than just a lost play date.

We can't control what our daughter will encounter in the classroom, on the playground, or anywhere else. If other girls choose to be mean or exclusive, or try to steer her to do the same, it's the job of their parents to know and care. Not all do. But we can at least arm our own child with the right language and strategies for how to maintain healthy friendships. And we'd better do it now: there will likely come an age where we don't get the full report of her social life over dinner. When that time comes, I can only hope these early lessons will see her through.