When I was in my late 30s, I found my journals from when I was in sixth grade. We were about to move, so I was going through my things, and there they were. I picked them up with the intent to read them. I apparently journaled often, and there were lots of notebooks. I only made it through half of one, but it went a lot like this, “I can’t stand this girl and this girl was mean to me and I am really irritated with this girl,” and on and on. And I thought to myself, “Who was there to help me sort through all of this?” Because it was clear I desperately needed it.
Now my daughter (8) is starting to enter the world of intense social relationships and it’s clear she needs this mentorship, too. Except I often find it bewildering to try to help. She is not always forthcoming with me about what happens. I can’t see everything that goes on. I only have limited power in certain situations. What is a deeply committed and concerned mom to do? Then I brushed her hair and the answer was revealed to me.
While I was brushing her hair, my daughter started to sob softly. This is somewhat normal. My daughter has a lot and I mean a lot of hair and sometimes we get to a point in brushing it, despite my best efforts to be gentle, where she finds it irritating and painful. But this time she insisted, “No, no, it’s not the brushing. It’s something else.” It turns out she was remembering something that happened between her and a friend. It happened a rather long time ago, but she was still in tears about it. It was hard to wade through her story about what happened, which was detailed. It involved imaginary friends, imaginary play, pretend teachers, “weird” (her word) things, and doing things just to do them. Ultimately, even in imaginary play, my daughter’s friend decided my daughter was a liar and had to be punished by the teacher. The friend set her up to get her into a “gotcha” moment and had her punished. And this was all because my daughter was trying to clean a mirror, which was entirely positive behavior, but not what she was supposed to be doing in “class.”
Although I was brushing her hair, a job one naturally wants to finish, when my daughter started crying, I saw my opportunity. Finally, I got to know what was happening. I stopped brushing her hair and sat down on the floor with her, as she told me all this. I’m not good at all things one could ever be good at, but I am good at listening to my children, particularly when they are emotional. It’s my thing; it’s what I do; I am practically “on call” at all times for it. There was so much my daughter didn’t know. She described how her friend always made herself out to be the popular one in pretend play and made her “just the sidekick.” I had to tell my daughter all about this girl and the trials she had. This girl was mentally abused by both her grandmother and mother. They berate her and tell her she’s not good enough. When she invited her entire class to her birthday party, none came. But whatever the trials of this girl, they don’t get to be sadistically taken out on my daughter.
I got to tell my daughter my feelings on all of it. I was grateful for it. In fact, I was grateful to be confronted with an abusive situation–because unfortunately this exists in our society and my daughter will be faced with at some point–such that I could walk my daughter through it. We both could see that this girl’s behavior was because of her family. In fact, I find just about all legitimately bad and undesirable behavior from children is a product of the drama and trauma that they bring from their families, i.e., not their “lack of discipline.” And by “bad” behavior, I mean legit bad–bullying and a willful desire to hurt. At any rate, I told my daughter is it NOT her job to fix this. It is on adults to fix this. Unfortunately, how can we adults do anything about it? This family is a self-contained unit and there is little I or anyone really can do about it. Any confrontation about it would result in denial or a break in the relationship (though I’m fine with that.) At any rate, this is not normal, not healthy, and not what friendship is. And I got to make that very clear for my daughter.
My daughter asked me what she thought of the friendship. I asked her, “Can I tell you the truth?” She said yes. I said, “I don’t think this girl is a good friend.” She was shocked by this. Now she was in a conundrum. Should she break up a friendship she’s had for three years–something important to her. Or should she no longer put up with this behavior. I told her that I left the decision in her hands. However, no matter what, I hoped she would come to me with problems like this so we could talk it out. This was all eminently wise to her. She got to be the decider of her fate but she had someone in her corner, on her side. She decided she would spell out for her friend exactly what she didn’t like about how she behaved. Then, if she kept doing it, she would cut contact. And I thought this was eminently wise. What an outstanding and mature position. Tell her exactly what was wrong and then follow up with it if no change is seen. And that, right there, is how and why bullies don’t win.
I find girls need a lot of mentorship about social relationship and I mean a lot. Oh, sure, boys too. I woke up this morning to an article about Presley Garber, son of Cindy Crawford, describing his mental health struggles. I noticed this from the article,
“When he was 17, he belted out some tunes in the music studio because he ‘wanted an outlet’ to ‘share some of my experiences with some people.'”
And I thought to myself: where were adults to be the outlet he needed to sort out those experiences? Children need more than journals and music studios to sort through the big, heavy experiences they go through–heavier than any adult even goes through in one day. I’ve had conversations with my oldest son thus far, pointing out to him when behavior wasn’t fair or when he deserved better. I just think a spotlight needs to be shone on girls. They often have intense social relationships, and they really do need a tremendous amount of mentorship when it comes to those social relationships.
Unfortunately, I find the overwhelming philosophy of adults is, “Kids can sort things out themselves.” I am not sure if anyone has noticed, in my massive amount of writing, blogging, and research, but this is actually the exact philosophy I’m pushing back on. I am the author of Misbehavior is Growth and I do highly popular child development work, which you can find at the main page of The Observant Mom. I document the age-related “stages” children go through. It’s those times children “act up” but on the other side is new development. My argument is that this “acting up” is an instinctual call from children for mentorship from adults. It is not behavior to punish or subdue. It is a time to lean-in and teach. Children need this–mentorship–and a lot of it. They need mentorship more than they need “natural consequences,” more than they need “firm but gentle boundaries,” more than they need the pure chaos of many children, without any adults around, making up stories that they are the dog or the sidekick or the brat who needs punished. They need you. They need mentorship. They need someone to see the things that they cannot see yet.
That children need mentorship, including and especially when they “act up” is actually all a wee bit deeper than this. I go into it more in my books, Misbehavior is Growth. In particular my book on four year olds describes just how shaky children’s consciousness is and how much they need your strong, supportive, grounding voice. I have books out now on toddlers, threes, fours, and a blog here about The Misbehavior and Growth of Five Year Olds.