Back in 2004, I found myself thoroughly disgusted with reality television though, admittedly, I’m not fond of any of it. That was when a new show was introduced called The Swan. Do you remember that one? It was full of women who were “ugly ducklings,” but who would be given extreme makeovers that came with surgery, personal trainers, dentists, coaches, and therapists. The transformation would take months, and episodes were contests between the two women they chose to feature for the week. Each week, a woman was voted off while the winner continued on until the final beauty pageant at the end of the season. This was bullying in reality TV form.
Let me say that with a little more emphasis: after undergoing invasive plastic surgery, dealing with massive changes in diet, enduring dental surgeries, and getting coached within an inch of her life, ONE WOMAN STILL WENT HOME A LOSER. She still wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, or changed enough. If that’s not enough to completely wreck a woman who already feels bad about herself, I don’t know what is.
Personally speaking, when I was young I know I engaged in my fair share of “mean girl” antics, from passing notes to spreading gossip and making it hard for other girls to fit in when I, too, was hoping to find my own space. After raising my own daughter, though, I watched how being a mean girl morphed into something else. Not so much different — just evolved if I can use that word. When Mallory was in middle school, a group of kids started a “slam book” where they wrote mean things about other kids, and she got caught up and participated in it. Once I learned of her part in joining in, I was furious that she took part in it. It was directed at one girl, named Heather, who happened to be a smart, pretty, athletic student. Did I mention that, at the time, I was also my daughter’s teacher? She was my student — as was Heather — so my embarrassment at her participation was difficult in more than one way: As a mother, but also as the teacher of these girls. What could I do to ensure that my own reputation as a teacher wasn’t tarnished while also knowing that I could be judged as a “bad mother?”
The only response I could think of was to deal with it head-on. After getting permission from Heather’s mom, we drove over to her house, and I made Mallory own up to her behavior. She apologized to Heather and Heather’s mother because what she did was so personal and hurtful that I knew, as a mother, how angry and painful that would have been for me if my daughter was the target. To this day, I don’t know what the other kids’ parents had them do, but we wanted no part of it.
Mallory hated me for the remainder of 7th grade. And you know what? We survived that. As an adult, my daughter has thanked me for that lesson as well as many others. It paid off, but, yeah, it took years.
Last night, I noticed that one of my students had an Instagram photo of four girls, and she asked her followers to “vote” one of them off in an elimination contest. Even though I am the “Big Bad Disciplinarian” at times, my students want to follow me online and ask me to follow them back. I’ve made it a rule that I won’t do so if I see bad stuff happening there. This is a huge difference from when I worked in the high school and those students didn’t even want me to KNOW they used Facebook. (This was before you could lock things down and I caught many things that way. Party at that park? Oh, let me just let the authorities know that underage drinking is happening. Sorry, kids. I don’t think that was smart to advertise. They’re probably reading this and are mad at me now. Guess what? I’ll survive that, too.)
I debated whether or not to say anything, because I don’t often comment or even like their pictures, but I see them. This time, I decided to gently press on it and wrote:
“What kind of game is this? I’m not sure I want to follow if people get their feelings hurt. Maybe rethink this one?”
Afterwards, I went about my business and made dinner for my family and decided to check back in later only to discover that all her ‘voting’ pictures were deleted. When I mentioned it to friends on Facebook, I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of support for it. What I’ve come to realize is that we too often shame children in that kind of behavior. Do you know what’s really hard about being a tween/teen these days? When they make mistakes and have lapses in judgment everyone in the world can see it and pile on them. Developmentally speaking, what my student did was appropriate in how young girls measure their worth, try to gain friends and popularity, and just be normal teenagers. Kids this age are figuring it all out and, unfortunately, doing so with social media as a tool. When I did something stupid as a kid, only a few people knew about it. It certainly didn’t follow me around my entire life that I was asking friends to do something like vote on who the best or prettiest was.
My approach, in this delicate situation, involved a few things:
1. Ensuring that she could not only see the consequences of her behavior, but also if she wanted that done to her.
2. Pointing out that I knew a little something about being a girl myself. I understand the messages they get as I’ve heard them myself, and they didn’t always make me feel good about myself.
3. Pushing on the responsibility she has with a tool that powerful. (Images are forever.)
Finally, if there was a 4th point to my discussion with her, I questioned her about what kind of pictures she thinks are uplifting and encouraging and asking if it was possible to strive for that.
There will always be new ways for kids to be kids, but doing so with technology is brutal and we all know how bullying has been taken to another level with apps like Snapchat, Instagram, or Ask.fm.
If I could offer any hope, it’s this: Children need firm reminders of boundaries and should be made to think about their choices in a way that doesn’t shame them. The Instagram situation turned out great for this young girl and we concluded it with a heart-to-heart discussion today. I’m glad she saw how hurtful it was. Being a girl is hard enough.
Finding new ways to be a mean one doesn’t have to ruin someone’s life, though. We can teach and instruct and guide, and not everyone has to be a loser in the business of growing up. Surely, our daughters deserve better messages than that.
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