I recently had a conversation with a mother who is concerned about her daughter’s experiences at school with mean girls. You know, mean girls: the scourge of the middle grades and beyond. Perhaps from a need to build themselves up, these mean girls seek to tear others down, hoping to place themselves upon a pedestal made from the broken backs of others. They’re a wily bunch, traveling in packs like wild dogs and just as cruel and exacting in their ferocity.
As the mother of two girls, I’m terrified of them. Let me clarify that. I am not personally afraid of them. I know that I can take them on, all swagger and rage in my momma bear persona if need be. But I won’t do that, because taking on the mean girls is no longer my fight, thankfully. I know all too well the damage they can inflict upon a girl’s developing psyche, i.e., my girls’ psyches. Like most women my age, I think back to Little House on the Prairie and that quintessential mean girl: Nellie Olsen. But Nellie is likely tame compared to the mean girls of today.
What scares me is that like so many other battles kids have to face, they generally face this one alone. Their own shaky self-worth is pitted against a small clique wielding its power far beyond the playground. Yet, as cruel as they can seem to their peers, they are also masters of duplicity, who shape-shift into sweetness and light when necessary or advantageous.
And so, how do we, as a society, train our girls to combat this enemy? This enemy, who is as much us as we are them?
I think the answer lies in teaching our girls to listen to and to value their intrinsic worth. So often, it seems that we praise our children for extrinsic manifestations: grades, awards, medals, and other tangible proof that they have merit by society’s standards. But what about teaching them to calibrate their own personal meters of self-worth? To encourage them to pursue activities that allow them to feel good about themselves, regardless of the the points earned, the time on the clock, or the evidence of whatever our flavor-of-the-month society deems valuable?
It occurs to me that many of the pursuits that interest me as an adult fall into this category of intrinsically worthy. I run, not because I will win any races, but because I like how three miles feels: like an accomplishment, even at my turtle pace. I do yoga because it clears the chatter in my mind, including those mean girl demons that still, somehow, sometimes, reside within. I spend time outdoors because nature heals and restores my spirit. And I write because it’s one creative pursuit that makes me feel exceptional, even if I choose not to share it with others. And I think a lot of women get the same positive energies from a wide variety of activities that allow them to be creative and active by striving towards personal goals that are both public and private.
In my youth, I tried some sports, but I was without much natural grace, and was therefore pretty mediocre. Plus, that domain seemed to belong to my siblings and not to me. I tried music, which I enjoyed, but which was more work for me than I was willing to do. I could never quite make it to the elusive First Chair. I don’t think I realized at the time that I could play just for my own enjoyment. It took me a long time to find niches that felt right for me. The more that we can find ways to encourage our daughters to engage in activities that don’t require judgment and winner / loser brackets – those extrinsically valued rewards that our culture esteems so highly – the stronger these girls will become. The more ready they will be to face those mean girls – those who lurk on the playgrounds as well as within – and to perhaps encourage them to show their softer side. Not everything need be a competition with a single alpha female triumphing over the rest.
But I have to ask myself: How did I get to this point? How did I become comfortable in my own skin? It was certainly a long journey for me. I know that it isn’t the mere passage of time that guided me to my own personal satisfaction with myself. But I can’t really pinpoint what occurred or when. Is it the wisdom imparted by experiences I’ve had that make my life at forty-three years so much more bearable than it was at thirteen? Am I just better skilled at seeking out those who are like-minded and at resisting the vortex of those mean girls who, yes, I still encounter among my colleagues? And how do we adults help create a new social value, where competition is replaced by community?
I don’t know the answers to these questions any more than my daughters would if I asked them. And just as there are aspects of parenting that I do without much thought, there are others that I do very deliberately, like limiting my daughters’ exposure to media that promotes images of women that are not only unrealistic but utterly unattainable without a troupe of professional Photoshop artists.
There is a beauty that comes from within, from a sense of poise and confidence that is innate at our beginnings and which it is possible to regain from resilience and the conviction that, yes, you are worthy. Intrinsically and beautifully worthy. And it is that worth that we need to help our daughters reclaim, and not reclaim for them, for that defeats the purpose altogether. It should be our wish that each girl blaze her own unique path, and along the way, seek out those glimmers that lead to her own personal, intrinsic happiness.