Sometimes it seems like mean girls must be a force of nature.
Just watch two-year-old girls form cliques in a sandbox, lording it over other toddlers like pint-sized prom queens. For some kids, the social dynamics of queen bees and social outcasts start before girls are even out of diapers.
Does being mean just come natural?
It might. It isn’t meanness, though, say social scientists. Rather, girls’ cliquishness represents a difference in how they like to socialize. Girls of any age tend to prefer close, intimate, one-on-one relationships, while guys run in packs. Research suggests these patterns hold true whether you’re three or thirty.
Of course we all know the exceptions to these rules. We might even be the exception: the women who prefers groups or the man who only wants deep, soul-searching friendships. But as a broad pattern, observing the way girls form friendships helps explain “mean girl” behavior in a somewhat kinder light.
Researchers at Harvard University and Emmanuel College have used a competitive game to suss out some differences between men and women. They found that when women are threatened with being excluded from a group, they’ll form an alliance with another woman to protect themselves.
Think of playground politics as a real life version of Harvard’s game: girls need to be included, so they exclude others to protect themselves.
This isn’t to say that playing “mean girls” is OK. Understanding why my preschooler wants to gang up with her friends and tease other kids doesn’t mean I’m off the hook on teaching her not to do it.
But like a lot of unattractive behaviors, having a clue about what drives a kid to act that way can help me redirect it. Next time my little darling breaks out her “teasy voice”, instead of just chastising her to knock it off, I can try to help her feel more secure in the social group while also treating everyone with respect. Soothing her fears will, I hope, help her stop wanting to be mean to other kids.