"You’re Not My Friend"

Boy, bullying is sure in the news.  Funny how people pay attention (at least for a minute, our national attention span) when kids kill themselves, eh? 

Today, I am reading Rachel Simmons’ “Odd Girl Out:  The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls”, a 2002 book which claims to be “the first book devoted exclusively to girls and nonphysical conflict”.  It focuses on the relationships of girls starting at about age 10, identifying the ages of 10-14 as the time when bullying between girls is at a peak.

It’s an interesting read, though based largely on what appears to be anecdotal evidence, and of course, it has much in it that needs to be said.  Particularly valuable are the voices of girls that were interviewed for the book (I’m a sucker for primary source documents), though, from a research perspective, that aspect is diminished by the absence of information about how many interviews took place or how economic, social, or racial diversity was represented in the population whose experiences obviously shaped this book and its conclusions.  It left me wondering a little if this world being described was largely the world of white, middle- to upper-class girls in relatively affluent communities; not that that makes it less important, but it does speak to the universality of the findings.  I do wish that information had been included, but that’s probably just the stickler-researcher in me.
Rachel Simmons sheds essential light on the “mean girls” syndrome that we all, on some level, know so well—especially those of us with adolescent daughters.  She explains, in an easy-to-read format, the dynamics of non-physical violence between girls, and the culture of exclusion and social ostracism.  Most importantly, she urges us to take it as seriously as we do the aggression of boys, a conclusion I agree with completely, though one that leaves me wondering how seriously we do treat the aggression of boys.
Then again, perhaps I’m a Pollyanna about all of this.  It’s very possible.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been called an idealist.  I still think that schools and parents and communities could do something about this if they wanted to.  I still think that we could call aggression between children what it is and address it when it occurs.  I really do.  I also know that what we are currently doing is…well, not that.
In my 10 year old daughter’s public school (one of the best in the country) and to some extent, the district and the whole state that I live in, there is much talk about bullying and bullying prevention.  I mean, they have a dedicated and well-researched social skills program in place and a bulletin board about bullying up in the hall and they mention it in the parent newsletter.  Surely that means that they are all well informed about what it is, and on top of addressing it when it occurs.  Right?  (Oops, sorry, that’s my cynical self slipping into the conversation, please forgive me).  At the same time, I feel confident that if I were to walk into the office and ask if they have any current incidents of bullying or significantly aggressive behavior, I would get an answer in the negative.  If I asked about their understanding of the critical—some would say primary–role of power dynamics in bullying (in girls and boys, with or without physical aggression), my suspicion is that I would be greeted with largely blank stares.  If I inquired what they know about the very few anti-bullying programs that have really shown results and how they plan on making use of the findings from those places, I am certain that the answer I would get would be…well, irrelevant.  Even if they know about it (which I highly doubt), the findings that indicate the critical role of the presence and involvement of more adults at free play times (when a large percentage of these behaviors occur) would just prove that those tactics are not workable for our overtaxed and under budgeted system of public education. 
Just to show that I’m not above a little anecdotal research myself, I’ll tell you a story about something that happened this week at my daughter’s school.  Before I begin, let me say that I wouldn’t call it bullying.  And it surely is not the girl-on-girl viciousness that is discussed in this book.  But we’re talking about aggression and violence.  Or at least I am, and you’re playing along (thanks for that, by the way). 
It has been a rainy, warm-ish, humid week in our part of the world.  Outdoor recess has been questionable (because, as you and I both know, children melt if they get wet—but that’s another discussion, and another book, for another day).  Some days it did work out.  But there were puddles (aauuggghh!!).  I heard the announcement myself while working in the school library:  “There will be outdoor recess, but students must stay on the blacktop” (because the grassy areas are, you guessed it, wet, and children’s feet melt if they get wet, remember?).  Fine, fine.  As you can tell by now, I have plenty of opinions (well-informed ones, or at least I like to think so), but this is something (believe it or not) that I let go. 
My daughter and three of her friends made good use of the restricted, threatening-to-melt-them recess time.  In true girl form, they built a city.  They took a shallow puddle and made it an ocean (or a lake, or some such thing).  They placed rocks and branches and maybe other materials in the shallow puddle, building islands and bridges and roads that connected them all.  They constructed a narrative about the people that lived in these communities.  The towns, the people, the islands, all had names.  They had lives.  They were “real”. They made a world.  I’m not sure I could possibly have designed a more creative, or frankly, educationally productive, activity for them to do at recess (another great argument for leaving our kids alone to decide what they will do during their free time).   And when the bell rang for recess to end, a boy that they know came over and, in front of the girls and with great glee, jumped on, kicked, and to the last twig, thoroughly destroyed what they had made, clearly fully aware that he was dismantling a planned piece of work (and incidentally, getting his feet wet, which is clearly verboten, I hope he can still walk with his feet melted off).  One of the girls punched him.
My daughter was dismayed, but not devastated.  She rolled her eyes, chalked it up to “boys”.  She understood, as do I, that any structure like that made in an open space would surely not last, whether destroyed by people, cars, bikes, or weather. She also understood that boys could do those things without repercussions and that if the girls were to “tell”, they would be perceived as “whiny” or “too sensitive”.  Right.  Boys can be aggressive, and girls must, above all, be “good” (which means ignoring male aggression?  Hmm, that seems the wrong message for future relationships, doesn’t it?).  Ironic, isn’t it?  Here we are talking about an incident that has nothing to do with the book’s focus on “the hidden culture of aggression in girls”, and suddenly we find ourselves faced with one of the book’s primary conclusions—that girls are not allowed to express anger and their interactions, oppression, and aggression all revolve around the importance of being “good”.  Hmm.  And again, I say:  Hmm.
The village destruction event—let’s call it pillaging, just for effect–passed without much incident, surely not the stuff that one still thinks about 40 years later.  When I heard about it as a parent, I didn’t do or say anything, other than “sorry to hear that”.  And yet questions linger. 
Why is this okay?  Why is some time in school integral and some incidental?  Is the message “If no one sees you, it’s okay” the one that we want to send to children?  How is it that recess “doesn’t count”?  If we know from research (which we do) that recess is when most bullying behavior occurs, then how is it productive for recess to “not count”? If one child ripped up another child’s drawing in art class, they would be disciplined, possibly even suspended.  If one child destroys another child’s piece of artwork at recess, they are just being kids.  I admit it.  I’m perplexed.
I told you I was a Pollyanna.  I admit it.  I believe in children (and other people, for that matter) behaving with respect and courtesy, and (gasp) self-discipline.  I’m not so naïve that I believe it happens all that often, but I still believe in it as a standard and objective.  So sue me.  I believe in decency (and I believe that children treated with respect respond in kind, but that’s another matter for another day, too). 
So here’s the real scoop.  Our public schools, many of which are still using 1950’s models (and sometimes 1950’s materials as well!) to teach in this 21st century, continue to take the view (if you dig deep enough) that “kids will be kids”.  And worse yet, most parents feel similarly (much to my chagrin, and ironically, much to the undoing of schools’ attempts to address problems of bullying, or are we missing that connection?)  .
In other words, schools—and parents–don’t intend to do anything about any of this.  At least not in 5th grade.  Maybe it’s because kids this age rarely kill themselves. I don’t know.   I do wish they’d just admit it though, because hypocrisy really bugs me.
What kills me is that this is their chance.  It’s still elementary school.  Few of the children are regularly using texting or social media, at least with any regularity.  In one or two short years, they will join the legions of middle schoolers who discover that, even if adults are watching, it is possible to tease and torment people publicly and even anonymously without ever being seen or heard.  Wouldn’t this be the time to address it?
I was bullied as a child, both physically (or at least frequent threats of physical violence) and in the “garden variety” ways, as they are described in this book.  Rachel Simmons, the author of this book, tells us of her own history of victimization in the book’s introduction.  We surely have that in common.  Interestingly (at least to me), she speaks of fantasizing about meeting her tormentors now, as adults.  She ponders what that interaction would be like, whether they would remember her, how the view from adulthood would temper both their current interaction and their perspective on those events from childhood.  I have often done the same.  Embarrassing as it is to admit, I have even had moments here, at age 52, of imagining that their lives have somehow been difficult, and finding pleasure in the idea.  The mere fact that revenge fantasies, in admittedly muted form, persist more than 40 years later is just plain astounding.  It is certainly testament to the lasting impact of these experiences on young girls (I was 10) and in turn, the importance of our discussing and writing and talking about—and addressing! –the dynamics of interpersonal aggression in children.
Even at recess.

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