Dear Fellow Fifth-Grade Moms,
I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time.
I’ve had questions about whether or not you allow your girls to use certain apps, how you plan to talk to them about sex, what you think about academic achievement and homework, and how you think we can best protect our daughters from pressures (to be sexual, to drink, to try drugs) during junior high.
But, right now, I want to talk with you about something that feels even more pressing: their friendships and how they treat each other.
This is a dark time for women, or perhaps more accurately, it’s been a dark time for women and girls for a long time, and we thought things were getting better and they haven’t, they aren’t, or at least not enough.
And there are all kinds of things we need to do to make this right. We could march, and support Planned Parenthood, and mentor girls who need help, and contact our politicians, and be vocal on social media. And we should. But we also need to start in our own families, with our own children.
Our daughters are fantastic. They are all good, kind people. They are feisty and impassioned and radiant and funny. And they are trying like hell to navigate through this shitshow of a culture we have given them. They are trying to find their place, their voices, their self-worth.
And sometimes they are not allies to one another.
This is not their fault. This is what we have given them to work with. Or rather, what we haven’t given them. They have no tools.
On the playground, one of them dares to talk with another child, so the three remaining form a club with a ridiculous name and inform her she is not allowed to be part of it. They say to each other, “If you don’t do this, then I won’t let you…”
And so it goes — the same dynamic plays out in a variety of unique circumstances day after day. You’re out, you’re in. You choose someone else, you are banished. They aren’t bullying, they aren’t overtly cruel, it’s subtle.
This is not a new problem. This is how we solved problems on the playground in the 1980s, and likely well before then. This is why I felt like I never truly belonged, not until perhaps I was nearly finished with college. I always felt as though I were looking for a table in the cafeteria in seventh grade. Is there a fresher hell than that?
I had fantastic, loving friends in fifth and sixth grades, but there were always undercurrents of power plays at work. Conflict within, choosing to have a sleepover with Friend A and not Friend B, shifting allegiances at recess to talk quietly with Friend C — such a coup!
I don’t remember the circumstances, but during the last half of sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Noonan, left a studious child at her desk in charge of supervising the weekly reading exercise, while she ushered me and my six friends into the nearby teacher’s lounge to sort out our shit with her as mediator.
We cried as pre-adolescent girls who are deeply insecure and have been deeply wounded by one another do, and by the end we were laughing. We had seen reason. Mrs. Noonan had in fact shown us our business. I have no earthly idea to this day what she told us or what we had been fighting over, but the message was clear: You are stronger together.
She was the only adult who bothered to try to figure out what was wrong with us, to point us back in the direction of solidarity, loyalty, clarity, and sanity.
To get ahead, we step on each other, turn on each other, exclude one another. And our daughters step on each other, turn on each other, exclude one another. This is what women do, and what our young girls are doing. And it has to stop.
They are going to become part of the problem. We are already part of the problem.
We have to find a way to combat the exclusivity that has always been the hallmark of female friendships; it’s what makes us feel safe, important, powerful. I am safe and good because I am with you, and she is not with us. But we need to teach them that this exclusivity is a myth, that we actually are better, healthier, happier, and yes, stronger together.
I have been re-reading Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher, PhD. I first read it as a college freshman, and I remember vividly thinking, When I have a daughter, I will read this book again. I will help her. At this age, our girls are at a dangerous precipice in what Pipher calls a “girl-poisoning culture.” She writes:
“Girls become ‘female impersonators’ who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Vibrant, confident girls become shy, doubting young women. Girls stop thinking, ‘Who am I? What do I want?’ and start thinking, ‘What must I do to please others?'”
They need each other so much during this transitional time, and they need us too. We need to wake up and get involved.
How can we expect them to be courageous and kind to those who may be “different,” when they cannot take care of each other? If we want our children to reach out and support friends of different ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic groups, how can we teach them to do that when this group of little suburban white girls consistently demonstrates cruelty and competition?
I am firmly convinced that the answers begin with talking. I do not know what exactly the answers are, but we have to begin by acknowledging that the problems are there and that we are committed to addressing them. And we can only do this by talking about it.
Maybe we need to spend time together, with them. What else can we do?
Can we form a Facebook group where we regularly check in about kindness, insecurity, change, puberty, technology, and share our thoughts and problems about our fifth-grade girls? Or will we eventually turn on each other, gossiping that we can’t believe she would allow her daughter to do that thing we would never do, or really, let’s be honest, it’s her daughter who causes most of the drama, isn’t it?
Do we hire a speaker and sit down for a mother-daughter weekend seminar?
Do we beg the school psychologist to sit down with these girls and share with them the dangers of a culture of competition, judgment, and hostility amongst women? How continuing such trends will only assure that we stay exactly as we are, right now? Unable to feel our own power, to assert our value, angry at one another, shamed into silence, voting for our own continued marginalization?
Does that sound dramatic? It’s not. We may not have gotten ourselves into this mess. Perhaps it’s more accurate that it was something we were fed without our realizing it, but we can damn well dig ourselves out of it. And it starts with our girls.
We have to remind them, daily, to be kind and strong. To speak up when other girls are being shamed and excluded. To urge their friends to use their voices, honestly, but kindly. To share their true feelings rather than to feed into frightened, resentful mob mentality. It’s time to band together, fellow moms of 10- and 11-year-old girls.
“You better come with us this weekend. If you don’t, we will get closer, and you’ll probably feel left out,” one of them warns the other.
We could let our kids solve their own problems, work through their own fights. There is value in that, of course. Or we could show them another way.
I want better for my daughter. I know you do too. So let’s do the hard work. It begins with us.
Moms, let’s start sharing ideas with each other. How can we begin to establish an open dialogue with our daughters and their friends about how to be kind, loyal, and supportive friends?