Every night at dinner, I ask my kids about their day. I ask very specific questions, like “who did you talk to at lunch?” and “what games did you play in the schoolyard,” hoping to elicit a more enlightening answer than “fine” or “good.” One night, my six-year-old daughter began telling me that she had a “problem” at lunch because a little girl wanted to be part of her group, but that my daughter already had her “sisters” and couldn’t let her join. So the girl went away sad.
My daughter was very matter of fact about the whole story. Internally, I was seething and really disappointed in her behavior. And I was truly surprised, as this was not the compassionate girl I knew, and decidedly not the same girl who will make a picture for anyone who so much as loses a tooth, the little girl who is generous to a fault. I asked my daughter how she thought the other little girl felt, and followed up with, “how would you feel if one of the other girls left you out.” She looked at me, and somewhat sheepishly said, “They wouldn’t. Everyone wants to be my friend.”
My son spit out his water and I remained frozen with my mouth open. I realized, for the first time, that I had no idea how to parent a girl who had no trouble making friends. A girl who was, as far as six-year-olds go, popular. I’ve read tons of material about supporting a child who is bullied, or has trouble making friends, or who has limited confidence. But this? This put me in the middle of the ocean with no life preserver.
I knew this was a teachable moment, but I also knew I had no idea what to say.
Beyond telling her what she did was wrong, and that she should apologize, I was at a loss.
And I became emotional as I thought back to my own childhood. Elementary school was a living nightmare. I was raised in an old-fashioned Italian home, where I learned every lyric to Sinatra’s catalog of music, but was pretty much out of the loop when it came to anything popular like Madonna or U2. Jane Austen was my best friend.
I had thick, curly hair that was cut into the style worn by most 85-year-old women, short in the back, a ball of puff frizz on top. I desperately wished for the long, sleek hair of my classmates. I was never tall and thin, was far too athletic for a girl, and got straight As. The teachers loved me. Many of my classmates decidedly did not.
I remembered days going into school not knowing if a particular girl or group of girls would even speak to me that day, or if I would have to aimlessly walk around the schoolyard, hoping another random group would adopt me for those miserable 40 minutes. I knew what it felt like to be unpopular, to be an outsider who was never comfortable in her own skin.
And here was my daughter, with her tall, thin frame, her sleek, long, black hair, and an infectious smile that charmed everyone she met. How was I to parent this child who represented something so foreign to me? Who looked like the girls that tortured me?
At that moment, I vowed that my child would never be responsible for causing anyone to feel the way I did growing up.
My childhood experiences made me passionate about being kind to others, especially those who may be different than you. I believe there is something to learn from everyone, and that we all have value simply by our humanity. And I believe that it is our obligation as parents to instill this compassion, acceptance, and understanding in our children.
And so I tried a little experiment with my daughter the next day. I grabbed my son, and told my daughter that my son and I were team, and we would be doing special things together throughout the day – and that she would not be included but would have to watch. She was really upset, to the point of tears. It took a total of 2 minutes for her to understand how she made that other little girl feel.
“Your actions have consequences,” I explained to her. Yes, she is only six, but trust me, even at that age they know how it feels to be left out. (Even younger, as some claim).
My daughter told me she was afraid that her other “sisters” in her group at school would be mad at her for including another student. Immediately, I saw images from the movie “Mean Girls” flash across my mind. I couldn’t believe I had to deal with this nonsense at Six. Years. Old. Didn’t I have at least another five years?
“Well,” I said, “if everyone really likes you that much, they’ll get over it. And if they leave you out, then you’ll know how to make that student you left out feel better. Right?”
She wasn’t completely convinced, but over the next few days, she took my advice to heart, and expanded her “sister” family at school. She cried when she told me how bad she made the other girl feel, and I had zero compassion for her tears. She needed to learn that our actions and our choices have consequences, and that hurting another person is a choice we should never make.
It took me weeks to process everything that happened, and even longer to share it here. It is beyond unsettling to feel like you can’t identify with your child, and worse, that that may impact how you parent them. There was also a part of me that felt I had failed as a parent, because I couldn’t believe my own child would leave someone out, would hurt another child’s feelings. I am still so upset about that part.
But I take solace in the fact that I was ultimately able to teach her to use her friendliness and social skills for the benefit of another child, and more so, that something like this happened while she was young, so that I could set the course straight from early on.
And I know I’m not alone on this parenting rollercoaster. I hear from so many of my mom friends how their daughters struggle in school, not because of academics, but because of social dynamics, mean behavior, and bullying. Parenting girls can be hard. I remain grateful for organizations like Girls Leadership Institute that empower girls, and help parents instill confidence in a variety of ways.
Every girl is unique, and we have to parent them according to their needs and differences. Over the past few weeks, I learned that, sometimes, that means leaving the past behind. I may not have been the popular girl – but for the first time, I’m grateful for that, as my experiences will shape my daughter into a kind, compassionate person who will use her social skills for good.
If you would like more information on the work that the Girls Leadership Institute does, please visit them at: www.girlsleadership.org.