Imagine you are a mom with a daughter. She’s sweet, and smart and charming. She was your first born and taught you about the true depths of love. She is more precious to you than your own self.
Now imagine you see her hurting. Every instinct you have is to be on
her side. To make it stop. Because even though life is filled with
hard lessons that we must each grapple with ourselves, and your daughter
is growing up and must begin to navigate the world without you, your
heart still tells you to fix it.
You talk to your daughter and find out the source of her pain is a
friendship that has gone awry. A girl she has known for years has
paired up with someone else and together they are snubbing her. Your
daughter is being left out. She suspects she’s being laughed at. Your
daughter’s friend has become a mean girl.
You soothe your daughter and dry her tears. You think about the best
course of action while resisting the urge to overreact as a mother
protecting her child is won’t to do. You think the best advice may be
to tell her to remove such an insensitive person from her life. Let it
go. Cut your losses and move on, concentrate on different friends.
Now imagine you are the other mom. The mom of the girl being labeled the mean one. Your
daughter is sweet and smart and kind. She has many friends and loves
them all. Your daughter is unaware that she’s made any of them
unhappy. She doesn’t know that by being inclusive with one person she
has excluded others and it hurts them. She doesn’t know the pain of
being on the outside and wondering why. She is not intentionally
cruel. She is oblivious.
You get a call from the mom whose daughter is upset. She tells you
how things look from her angle. From her daughter’s angle. She wants
to know if it’s safe to talk about it, or if it’s interfering too deeply
in the lives and relationships of these girls who are old enough to
have social lives of their own outside of the arrangements of their
mothers. You say yes, of course, to please tell you everything.
You think to yourself about all the times you fretted since you first
held your baby girl in your arms about what you would do if she were
ever picked on. You know the pain of being an outcast at school, of
being threatened and ridiculed and left out. You always figured you’d
find a way to help your own daughter stand up to the mean girls. You
would protect her. Accompany her to school or keep her home if you had
to, but no one was going to hurt your baby the way you were hurt. It
never crossed your mind in a million years that your daughter could be
on the other side of that scenario. That she would be capable of
hurting others. That didn’t seem possible.
You talk to the mom. You talk to your daughter, who is reduced to
tears at the thought that she caused her friend pain. You talk with
each of them again and even have them talk to each other. You talk to a
third mother with a child involved on the periphery, and chat briefly
with the teacher as well. Some of it is confusing, conflicting. There
is a slightly disorienting Rashomon effect as certain accounts don’t
match up, but a bigger picture emerges. There is no clear cut narrative
of good and bad. There are only mistakes and misunderstandings,
bruised feelings an unintended slights. But people are hardwired to
construct simple stories. We like labels. We want there to be a right
and a wrong and someone to blame. Real human beings are not that simple
and we need to resist labels in order to give people–particularly
children–a chance to be more than that.
You are glad the mom talked to you. You work together to give the
girls a chance to spend some time away from the school, to connect again
as friends. You talk to your daughter about remembering to step
outside herself and see what things look like from other angles. To not
get so wrapped up in her own activities that she can’t see what is in
front of her. You tell her that friendship is not just about fun, but
about responsibilities. She is determined to try harder to meet her
friends’ needs. And at the moment, it is working.
I have little sympathy for bullies. I recoil at the unfairness of
blaming victims for their own suffering. But in our self-righteous
hurry to pick sides and feel safe in our judgments, we need to be
careful. In some cases we can stop things from going too far and
causing unnecessary pain. Of course we need to protect our children,
but we must also be brave about speaking up and giving the other side a
chance to address the issue.
Because sometimes a mean girl isn’t
actually mean. And sometimes parents and their kids can do better if
they are offered a different perspective. Sometimes friendships can be
salvaged from misunderstanding and put on track again, but only when
people give each other the benefit of the doubt and are willing to both
talk and listen.
It all depends on your angle.