I thought I still had a few years before my daughter had to deal with mean girls. Teaching upper elementary school, I knew it was coming. I had seen the divide that can happen between the more "grown up" girls and the still "young ones" in third grade. I was aware of the need to be cool in fifth grade and how it can cause some girls to shut others out.
But I wasn't ready for my six-year-old to come home one day telling me about a girl who told her she wasn't "fashionable" enough. I wasn't ready for the story she relayed to her dad as they walked home from school.
A girl at school had told her that if she wanted to be considered for something special they were doing she needed to wear the prettiest dress. As she told James this, she touched the already fine dress she was wearing and said, "it has to be even prettier than this." She was obviously concerned and wanted desperately to be included in this other girl's special group. The message being given to her was that if she was only pretty enough, fashionable enough; would do enough of what the other girl told her to do, then maybe she would count.
The pressure to fit in and the dangling threat of exclusion are powerful tools and unfortunately, this exertion of power and control is not shielded from the young.
This focus on a girl's outward appearance and only being included if you are "pretty" enough, conforming to fit into a certain group; these are all very real things that exist in our society. We see it in our newly elected President who has very loudly spoken out about a woman's worth being tied to her dress size, to the first grade girl who wants to decide who is in and who is out.
So, what do I tell my daughter? It seems our first instinct is often to get angry, to want to defend our little ones to the core. And while this is a very real, very genuine feeling, it is not always helpful and can often lead to a back and forth of meanness and hurt.
I found myself instead trying my best to simply empathize with the muddled feelings my daughter was experiencing; to validate how hard this situation was and will continue to be for her throughout her life.
Next, I spoke of kindness. We try to make kindness a constant theme in our house; to daily ask our kids who they demonstrated kindness to at school. I told her that while it is important to be kind to others, it is just as important for her to be kind to herself. I told her that if she is being treated unfairly or rudely, that she had every right to say no, that simply being who she is qualifies her to speak up when someone is clearly trying to push her around. I explained to her that this is not a mean thing to do, that she isn't being unkind to the other girl, but that she is being kind to herself.
We also let her know that it is OK to say no and then continue to play with this girl and her other friends. Standing up for yourself does not have to include walking away, although sometimes it does.
I want so badly for my daughter to have a strong sense of self, to have a positive self-image, to know she is truly and deeply loved and to know that what she looks like on the outside will never change that.
I don't ever want her to think that she needs to change herself to fit in, or to look just right in order to please others. She is already just right the way she was made.
This world will try to sway her and so many outside influences will try to tell her what is beautiful, but in all of that I hope she remembers to be kind; to others and to herself.
In the face of this current climate of hate and power and control, I want to raise a daughter who knows so strongly that she is worthy.
Just imagine a world filled with girls who know their worth, who raise each other up and project kindness; a world where smart counts and pretty doesn't matter. Amen to that.