I have big problems with stereotypes in general, and gender stereotypes in particular. But every once in awhile i find myself face to face with one that is apt. I’m currently struggling with one that applies to my oldest daughter, and probably many girls her age.
In broad terms, boys and girls navigate social relationships at school differently. There can be a lot of overlap, and the basic stereotypes currently don’t apply to my younger kids, but they do to Aden. Boys’ friendships have their own complexities, but seem to be somewhat loose. There is greater opportunity among boys for joining in most play. They can be less selective and more forgiving. Girls’ friendships, however, can be like emotional minefields.
I was never what anyone might consider a popular girl. Far from it. I had friends in grade school whom I still keep up with on Facebook today, and a few of those stuck by me through the Jr High low point of my existence. Then I met Gabby on the last day of school and life was forever better. That’s not hyperbole. I understand the courage and joy having a best friend provides, and I don’t take that lightly. Interacting with family and knowing how to socialize with others outside it can be very different things, and as much as I owe my family for a great deal of who I am, credit for my being able to translate that to the larger world goes to Gabby. She taught me what real friendship looks like and there are few things more precious to me.
So I understand the need that girls have to bond with someone, to want to be two friends against the world. The intimacy of your own private language of inside jokes, of passing notes and sharing secrets, of laughing until your sides hurt, and feeling special and safe and chosen because you can lay claim to a best friend and that person can lay claim to you. I get it. But there can be a dark side to that, too, and it involves excluding others. Having been on both sides of that divide I can relate to either.
Aden, by comparison, seems to be a popular girl, as far as such a thing applies in 4th grade. She has never lacked for friends. She makes new friends easily wherever she goes. She certainly has her shy moments and times when social events don’t go the way she would like, but for the most part I watch the way she draws in her peers with engaging small talk in a manner that I was not capable of at her age.
This year she is in a new classroom, and for the first time has most of her friends in one place, not scattered throughout the school. Individually she still gets along fine with just about everyone, new friends and old. But there is something about girls and being inclusive beyond pairing off that is difficult. It’s not instinctive for many girls to let people in, even people they like in a different setting. There have been hurt feelings this year, and talk of nosiness and snubbing and people feeling left out. Friendship has gotten trickier.
A couple of weeks ago Aden and I were walking together across the park to pick up treats from the bakery for our book club meeting, and we talked about this a little. We actually started off talking about why there is fighting in the world. We talked about different reasons countries and groups of people go to war. We agreed it was sad. Then we started talking about school and her friends and some of the problems she’s run into this year. I listened as she told one side of a story, and I told her what I imagined the other side might be. She had trouble understanding why leaving certain friends out of particular games on the playground might hurt their feelings. She wants to have special things with different people and doesn’t see why they should mix.
I told her that sometimes our instincts don’t lead us in a good direction. That I understood why it was so tempting to pair up with a single friend and purposely leave another out. But just because we may be pulled one direction doesn’t mean it’s the one that does us the most good or is even all that much fun. I told her when in doubt it is always better to include people, to pull people in, to expand the game to let more friends play. I explained that it was a lot like what we talked about at the beginning of our walk, about nations fighting. Human beings seem to have a natural inclination toward war, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do better. We tend to do what gives us an immediate sense of safety and belonging, and that’s natural. But natural is not always synonymous with right or healthy or desirable. Both the great curse and salvation of ourselves as a species is we can choose. I want her to choose better. I want her to be a good friend to many, not an exclusive few.
I’ve talked about this a little bit with the mothers of the other girls involved. The dynamics are complicated by past histories and differences in age and just the way people change over time, but we would like our girls to still all get along and continue to play happily.
So here’s the question: Is this the kind of thing where I should be stepping back or stepping in? Do I withhold my opinion, or give Aden advice? Do we leave them to make mistakes that cause hurt feelings because those experiences are their own, or do we as mothers attempt to guide them toward something better? Maybe we can create situations that teach our girls how to function in groups of three, not just two.
I suspect in the end it’s unrealistic to think we can save them from the pain that changes in friendships can cause, but I don’t think it’s crazy to at least try. I’m glad I’m able to talk with the mothers of the other girls to help fill in the blanks of Aden’s stories, and be able to report back to her that, yes indeed, when she turned her back on so and so, that girl’s feelings really were hurt. Aden cried when she realized how some of her actions had been interpreted by people she cares about. It’s hard to pick a better path when you can’t see where you are stepping. I would like to think with enough information and tools my daughter could defy the stereotype of this particular phase. But it really may just be something girls do.