Child Caring

From 'Sugar & Spice' to the 'Mean & Nasties'

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / October 27, 1994

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If you're the parent of a 9- to 12-year-old girl, you probably have an idea of what Brookline psychiatrist Miriam D. Mazor means by the "Mean & Nasties."

Karen Bailey of North Andover, the mother of a daughter who is turning 9, needs no prompting to provide this definition: "Exclusionary behavior with a nasty undercurrent to it." She even offers an example:

Two weeks ago, her daughter was one of three girls who made fun of a fourth girl's new hair adornment. The girl was so distraught that she ran from the classroom crying, prompting her tormentors to burst into tears, too. The entire third grade class was upset in the process.

Luckily, teacher Susan Murgo responded immediately and appropriately. While the victim was being comforted elsewhere, Murgo met outside the classroom with the aggressors. She instructed them to each write a letter of apology and, at the principal's suggestion, she assigned them recess detention. Before the day was out, Murgo had called their parents and gathered the class together for a discussion about hurting feelings, making it clear that such behavior is not acceptable.

At home, Bailey also initiated a discussion. Since her daughter has been on the receiving end of meanness -- she had been brought to tears by girls over the summer because her beach towel bore a cartoon character they said was for babies -- Bailey was able to remind her of what it feels like to be picked on.

The idea that young girls could be excluded and humiliated over things as mundane as headbands and beach towels may seem absurd to us as adults and parents. But the need to fit in and gain approval from peers is intense for most girls this age, sometimes driving them to exclude others simply as a way to make sure they are not excluded themselves.

"It's a powerful drive for them, even if deep inside they know better," says Mazur, who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and in private practice in Brookline.

Fortunately, not all girls get caught up in this.

Carol Schraft, principal of the Driscoll School in Brookline, which goes through eighth grade), says that over the years she has identified girls who tend to escape this stage: "They are very independent with a strong sense of who they are. They have an interest or talent outside of school that takes up a lot of time and energy, and have strong family networks."

More commonly, however, like Bailey's daughter, it's just a matter of time before a girl will be on the receiving as well as the giving end of the Mean & Nasties, says child psychologist Nicki Crick. An assistant professor at the University of Illinois/Urbana, she studies mean behavior in boys and girls.

That's because girls this age, unlike boys, are focused on interpersonal relationships, struggling to understand social norms and mores. In this one way, at least, mean and nasty behavior may be helpful to them, according to psychologist Martha Putallaz.

"By seeing what gets criticized in someone else, you learn what behavior to avoid yourself," she says. In addition, she says, some studies show that two or three girls who snub another girl often feel a common bond as a result.

"That unexpected closeness leads them to a degree of intimacy they otherwise wouldn't have, to share secrets. That can be very helpful to some girls," says Putallaz, who is an associate professor at Duke University and studies children's social development.

Of course, that isn't very helpful to the girl on the receiving end, or even, in the long run, to the perpetrators, according to Crick. She says girls this age who continually engage in mean behavior tend to have difficulties forming close relationships as adults.

Which is why it's important for parents and teachers to intervene quickly, as Murgo and Bailey did.

"If an incident is significant enough to reach your attention, there's a good chance a number of less significant ones have occurred without you knowing about them," says Crick.

Mazur says that inside, most girls are unhappy with themselves for their participation. "They're glad for the chance to bare their feelings and anxious for us to set boundaries on what's acceptable and what's not," she says.

Unfortunately, because most of us as mothers have strong memories of being excluded or excluding when we were girls, we tend to jump on our daughters in an accusatory way.

"The biggest mistake is to say, 'How could you be so mean?' That shuts down any possibility of communication," says Mazur. Instead, she suggests:

- Ask for an explanation without judging her guilty. "Tell me what happened today," or, "Why don't kids like Mary?"

- Help her understand her feelings: "How did you feel?"

- Appeal to her sense of fairness: "How else could this have been handled?" "What could you do next time?"

- Set some limits. "Be specific," advises Mazur, whose suggestions come as much from her hands-on experience as a Brownie leader as from being a psychiatrist. For instance:

" 'You don't have to invite Mary to your birthday party, but you can't talk about it in front of her. You can't groan out loud if she's chosen for your partner. You can't tell her the seat is taken if it really isn't.' "

One way to tell that your daughter's behavior hasn't gone beyond what is considered typical is if she shows remorse -- "If you can successfully appeal to her sense of empathy," Mazur says -- and if there are only one or two incidents in the course of a year.

In Schraft's experience, girls learn their lesson quickly. One of the rules at her school is "You cannot be mean to people." So when there was some

troublesome exclusionary behavior going on in last year's seventh grade, she responded with a series of lunchtime meetings that eventually involved 12 girls. The discussions included talk of how unsafe school felt for the victims, who might vary from day to day.

"The behaviors stopped," says Schraft. "This year, all those girls are getting along."

Parents whose daughters are the victims need to intervene quickly, too. The obvious downside is that a girl will begin to feel worse and worse about herself.

First, says Putallaz, you need to find out why your daughter isn't fitting in. It may be that she is not socially skilled. "A girl may want so badly to be part of a clique that she tries too hard to please, turning the other girls off," she says. "Meanwhile, she's so focused on them, she never sees that there are eight other girls who want to be her friend." Putallaz suggests

helping her build a friendship with one or two of them.

Other times, what makes a girl a target may be a physical characteristic or trait. Try to help her change, as long as it can be done without her sacrificing autonomy or feeling she is to blame, says Mazur. When it's something that can't change, try to bolster self-esteem in other ways, by supporting a talent or skill.

As long as parents intervene to help both the victim and the perpetrator, Mazur says there is rarely any long-lasting, detrimental effects of the Mean & Nasties.

- If a girl's meanness seems to give her pleasure or extends to cruelty to animals, seek professional help.

- Once an incident has occurred, be alert for a repeat. Ask the teacher to keep an eye out, too, and to keep you informed.

- A girl may like another girl who is being victimized but be fearful that if she's nice to her she'll be targeted, too. Suggest that she not actively participate and that she invite her over after school.

- If you know something from your child that could help turn a victim around, tell the teacher, who can share it with the parents. It will be easier for them to hear it from her.

- There are many books that deal with both sides of exclusionary behavior, including "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," and "The One in the Middle is a Green Kangaroo," by Judy Blume (Dell); "Ramona Quimby, Age 8" by Beverly Cleary (Avon). Not as literary, but devoured by girls, are the 80 books in the Babysitter Club series by Ann M. Martin (Scholastic).

- If your daughter is being victimized, is she a target in all settings -- school, church, Brownies -- or just in one? If it's just one, it may be a particular girl or clique who is picking on her, rather than that she has a serious problem that causes her to be harassed.

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