The Problem With Tween Girls*
The click-bait headline blared something I can’t quite remember about how just plain horrible elementary and middle school (i.e. tween) girls are. They are pushy and loud and mean. That’s the idea right? That we are raising a generation of girls so imbued with the paradoxical juxtaposition of “girl power” and princess parties that they are empowered entitled little brats.
Let’s face it – any group of kids together, hell, any group of people together can have their fair share of bullying and negativity. Psychological bullying and exclusion and cliquishness is not the exclusive provenance of those individuals who present as female, nor those under a certain age. To attribute those traits primarily to girls is symptomatic of how we assign negative characteristics to those things that we consider to be feminine, whereas the same behavior in boys – like the child who repeatedly and for no apparent reason other than seeking attention was destroying my daughter’s sand creations at the park earlier this month – as “just being a boy”. For the record, I did not unleash a stream of vitrol on the mother who said this to me. Even the Moppet (my 4 year old, hereafter, “Mo”) seemed impressed at my restraint, like she knew there was something wrong with that explanation.
And what I really want to talk about is the flip side – the good things I observed in my morning out with my daughter. Mo is very socially aware. She is, in many ways, completely typically of what people think of when they think of little girls these days. She likes pink and is not opposed to princesses and is also very verbal and curious and physical. We were at the park specifically so that she could practice her “pedal bike”, a Disney Princess monstrosity that her ever-indulgent father scored off of Freecycle and spruced up for her birthday last year. Ever the determined child, she put her mind to mastering the art of pedaling (as opposed to just balancing on the pink flowered balance bike that her ever indulgent mother – i.e., me – spent actual cash on a couple of years ago for no reason other than she’d loved one at a friend’s party) and was tooling around at a pretty decent steady pace. She still needed some help on the hills, but was getting that whole foot/handle coordination down like a pro.
Then she saw her. Another girl, who was the spitting image of what Mo will probably look like in say 2nd or 3rd grade, right down to the long blonde ponytail, who was speeding around on her own bike like Evel Knievel. It was beautiful. And Mo wanted to know that girl, with her bright yellow shirt and her complete and total mastery of just about everything she tried.
As my heart sank in fear of her rejection of my delightful, yet still preschool age, offspring, Mo found her on the monkey bar ladder thing that Mo has been working on mastering for years. Every part of me wanted to intervene, but I didn’t. I watched, closely, from a bench about 20 feet away. Mo went up to the open end of the horizontal ladder and tried to climb up, to no avail. Then I overheard the other girl kindly suggest that she try it from the other end where there was more of a platform for her to climb on. And I watched her, this older child who held such fascination for my own, show Mo where to put her foot to climb up. And she blocked another kid who was about to swing into Mo from hitting her. And she patiently kind of, sort of played with my child as I looked on.
A lot of things could have happened there – Mo could have fallen and hurt herself, to be sure. But I was much more concerned with the potential heart hurt of rejection that blessedly never came. This is not to say that the other girl never wandered off, done with her remedial instruction. But she did it after taking the time to be a hero for another child. It’s also not to say that Mo never asked for my help – she did, once, then respectfully invited me to go sit down and let her play. And she did. She played on her own in and around some other kids. And she played on the see-saw with some other girls, closer to her age, taking gleeful turns sitting and surfing in the middle. Then she came back to me and she looked for the older girl, didn’t see her and rode her bike some more. Because that’s how 4 year old’s play – everywhere and anywhere and all around the town.
But there was something really special about how the older girl played with Mo. Mo played with a lot of kids that day, boys and girls in lots of different ways, some her age, some older, some younger. But she just glowed when that girl paid attention. It’s also not the first time that I’ve watched and older girl help my daughter do something within her ability but just a tad bit beyond her reach. For that matter, I watch her brother and his friends do that all the time, which is probably why Mo is so comfortable with kids who should intimidate her. So it’s not inherently a gender thing. Both girls and boys get the crap end of this stick – girls are pushy and bossy and mean, boys are rough and aggressive and thoughtless. In reality though, kids are pretty much whomever we allow them to be. It’s talking the time to see below the surface that can be hard.
*Pro-tip: There is no “problem”.
Photos by author. All rights reserved.