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.