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Child Caring

Shocking but true: Even 6-year-old girls can be bullies

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / January 15, 2004

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Standing together in a cluster of girls, Sara pulls Maya aside and whispers conspiratorially to her. "Do you think she's fat?" she asks, pointing to a girl in the cluster. Maya is startled. She doesn't know what to say. Sara persists. "You can tell me the truth. Pinkie swear I won't tell." "Well," Maya says. "I guess. Maybe a little."

Sara sprints to the girl in question and announces in a voice everyone can hear, "Maya thinks you're fat!"

The girls are 5 years old.

Colby College gender researcher Lyn Mikel Brown relates this story precisely because it is so shocking. We have come to expect behaviors like this from 9- to 13-year-olds. Indeed, 30 percent of sixth- through 10th-graders are bullies, victims, or both, according to a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It's so rampant in middle school that the federal government is looking to fund a nationwide anti-bullying initiative.

But 5-year-olds?

Anecdotal evidence indicates bullying behavior is increasing in kindergarten and preschool classrooms around the country, particularly among girls. "We can't quantify it, but it's definitely there, and it's relatively new," says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Veteran kindergarten teacher Anne Selman of the Pierce School in Brookline had five girls in her class last year who required constant intervention. "They would say unspeakable things to each other," she says. Across the state at the Touchstone Community School in Grafton, kindergarten teacher Jane Katch sees so much of it that she's written a book, "They Don't Like Me; Lessons on Bullying and Teasing from a Preschool Classroom" (Beacon Press).

One morning, she caught Nell and Gwynn leaving plastic insects in Zoe's cubby. "It was obviously a scare tactic; everyone knows Zoe is frightened of bugs," she says. But why?

"Are you upset with Zoe?" she asked.

They were. The day before, Zoe had invented a game that scared them. This was their way of getting back.

Had they been boys, they probably would have said right from the start, "This is stupid, we don't want to play." Katch says, "Boys are open and noisy and often physical, but at least you know about it."

When girls bully, they get quiet, not loud, they use words more than actions, and they do it in private, where adults don't see. Indeed, secrets are a popular way for young girls to torment each other. "Girls have absorbed a cultural directive that they have to be `nice,' " Katch says. "They tend to go along. . . . True feelings come out later."

Brown suspects we're seeing more of this as a natural progression of a movement begun in the 1990s. "Research showed middle school girls were losing their voices and their self-esteem, so they were encouraged to be more outspoken," she says. The message has trickled down to their younger sisters. "They're still little kids, though," says Brown. "They go about it in inappropriate ways." She is author of "Girlfighting, Betrayal and Rejection among Girls" (NYU Press).

Prothrow-Stith says the entertainment industry is more violent than ever and "reaching an age and gender that was once protected from it." While entertainment media now offer more roles for women, the result is that women are now just as likely as men to engage in violence. Brown says it's particularly a problem in children's cartoons where girl characters are typically nice on the outside, nasty on the inside. Think Angelica ("Rugrats"), Helga ("Hey Arnold!"), and Buttercup, Bubbles, and Blossom (`Powerpuff Girls).

"That's a change, and it has an impact on girls," says Prothrow-Stith. She is co-author of "Murder is No Accident, Understanding and Preventing Youth Violence in America" (Jossey-Bass). Developmentally, this couldn't come at a worse time. "The 4- to 6-year-old's curiosity and imagination are out of sync with their ability to understand, absorb, and master information," says Selman. "They're also at a very concrete stage; they take everything very literally, including insults." What's more, unlike boys, many 5-year-old girls see that a social hierarchy exists and want to master it. "That can drive them to be very unkind," Selman says. Consider the ultimate insult one 5- or 6-year-old girl can hurl at another: "You can't come to my birthday party!"

Unfortunately, girls won't just outgrow this, warns Nan Stein, a gender researcher at Wellesley College. Interventions fall into two categories: actively building a girl's resilience, and helping her in the moment, as situations arise.

For the former, Brown has developed the idea of "Hardiness Zones." Like the gardening concept that plants need the right climate to flourish, she says what girls need to be hardy and resilient are opportunities to feel in control, committed, and challenged. She is the co-founder of "Hardy Girls, Healthy Women" (hardygirlshealthywomen.org) in Maine. As a typical activity, Hardy Girls and their moms might spend an afternoon with a woman who has defied gender stereotypes to become a race car driver.

Brown also urges parents to teach media literacy to girls starting at age 3 and 4 by watching TV with them. In a show where a girl does something spiteful, she might ask, "Why do you think she did that?" or "Do you think there was a kinder way?" Pick your moments, she cautions; parents walk a fine line between being intrusive and getting across your message.

For schools, Stein has co-authored "Quit It!," an anti-bully curriculum for kindergarten through third grade (wcwonline.org/title276.html). It teaches how to identify words that hurt; how to be courageous, as in, "What would be the courageous thing to do if you saw a classmate being mean?"; and how to be an intervener instead of a bystander. Stein is also co-author of "Bullyproof" for fourth- to seventh-graders. To help your daughter when she feels victimized: Really listen. It's so hard to hear a daughter tell you she's been left out that we often jump in too quickly with solutions and suggestions. Just the act of venting can help a girl feel better. If you become angry ("I can't believe she said that!") or jump the gun ("I'm calling her mother!"), she may stop telling you and bottle up feelings even more. Be an ally. Make sympathetic, supportive statements ("Gee, how did that make you feel?") rather than blaming ones. ("What did you do to make her say that?").

Offer to be her partner. Even 5-year-olds are not too young to talk about fairness and kindness. Offer to help her practice what she can do/say if this happens again. Keep it simple, for instance, "Please don't say that, it hurts my feelings."

Stop the action. If you see bullying, intervene to have a quick meeting in which you help them identify what's going on: "I heard you both saying unkind words. Jane, it sounds like you're feeling frustrated because you want to play outside, and Mary, it sounds like you're feeling frustrated, too, because you don't. . ."

Maya, the 5-year-old who was tricked into saying a girl was fat, was lucky in two respects. The first was that a parent overheard the exchange and told her mother. The second was that her mother was researcher Brown.

Together, they talked about how a good friend doesn't make promises and then break them. They also talked about trusting your instincts.

"She knew from the initial question that this girl was up to no good, but she didn't know how to disengage," says Brown. She was able to arm her daughter with two strategies that are good at any age: Saying, "Gee, I don't know," and walking away.

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@globe.com

BE SURE TO EMPHASIZE KINDNESS AND RESPECT
1. If you see your young child bully another child, before you insist on an apology, identify the inappropriate behavior in a clear, firm way, and set consequences: ''Calling someone names is unkind. If you can't be kind, you won't be allowed to play.''

2. Let your daughter know it's ok not to be friends with everyone as long as you treat people with respect.

3. Wait a week (in case it resolves itself) but not more than two before going to the teacher with your daughter's complaints of being rejected or bullied. Be diplomatic: not, ''What's going on in this classroom?'' but, ''Here's what my daughter reported. What's your take?''

4. Invite all the girls in your daughter's class for a playdate, one by one. Whether she's feeling left out or is doing the leaving out, this will break down some barriers. It also gives you fodder for discussion (''What qualities do you look for in a good friend? How can you be one?'') and gives her a sense of control. It's even better if you include the moms.

5. Recommended reading for 4- to 6-year-olds: ''Courage'' by Bernard Haber (Houghton Mifflin).

6. If your daughter is aggressive and assertive in her play, give her language so she learns to stop and listen to playmates (''What do you want to do?''). If she's passive, help her learn to express herself more directly (''Being a good friend means I can tell you what makes me uncomfortable. This isn't a game I like. What can we do that we both like?'')

7. Help her find her own solutions. Kindergarten teacher Jane Katch remembers that when her daughter was 7 and new at a school, girls on the bus threw spitballs at her. Katch kept giving advice that her daughter rejected. Frustrated, Katch finally said, ''Well, what do you think you can do?'' That empowered her: ''I'll tell them they can throw spitballs at me on Monday and Wednesday, I'll throw spitballs at them on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday, we'll take the day off.''

"It helped that she had a sense of humor," says Katch.

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