Care and Feeding

Mean Girls Are Making Third Grade Miserable

Many apology notes have been written, but nothing changes.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m looking for suggestions on how to quash mean-girl behavior in the middle grades. This has been a recurring issue in my daughter’s class over the years, and it seems to have spiked this year, in third grade. The school and the parents have tried all of the standard stuff—class meetings, parents talking to their kids. Many apology notes have been written. We live in a small town, with a very involved and supportive community, and the school sends a strong anti-bullying message starting in kindergarten. Most of the girls are in a Girl Scout troop together, with a wonderful leader who addresses these issues. And yet, the meanness persists. Examples include: leaving mean notes on others’ desks, talking about other girls behind their backs, one girl telling others that they can’t be friends with her unless they unfriend another girl, aggressively criticizing other girls in class, and telling one person that she is not allowed to play games at recess.

I’m at a loss as to what more we adults can do to help. Is this something the girls just need to work out amongst themselves? That feels wrong to me, as some of them keep getting hurt, but maybe it is the reality and we should just focus on supporting them? To me, one problem seems to be that the meaner girls don’t seem to suffer any social consequences for their behavior, and I’ve always wondered if that would make the difference. We’ve spoken a lot to the kids about standing up for one another, but they still seem to have a really difficult time with this, except in the most overt bullying situations.

This is a K-8 school, so the girls have many more years together. At this point, I can only see things getting worse as they get older.

—Let It Go?

Dear LIG,

Hmm. These behaviors seem to land right on the borderline between “normal kid stuff” and “rapidly growing culture of abuse and victimization,” and that’s a tough spot to be in. But being that it’s a small town there is a fairly good chance that, if not addressed, these dynamics will continue, concretize, and have growing effects on everyone involved. So I think you should take the situation seriously.

It sounds like, as a community, you are doing everything you can. Of course, you don’t have the power to compel every parent to behave exactly as you would wish, but you say that teachers, troop leaders, and others have intervened on multiple occasions. And yet the problem persists. So, my guess is that short of imposing fines and imprisonment there are not a great many more consequence-based options left on the table.

But in situations like this I tend to think more about how to support and help the victims than about how to get the perpetrators to stop. Because the danger of bullying like this is that it wears grooves in the growing psyches of children who are on the receiving end. If you are the one being left out, receiving mean notes, being made fun of, you tend to form your personality, worldview, and sense of self around the twisted notion that you are somehow less worthy or important than other kids. And of course, this will not do. If I lived in this community I would probably take special care to create opportunities for the kids who are experiencing this to talk about it. To hang out, to be socially included. Maybe sleepovers, trips to the beach or a park. This is totally doable because third grade is still well within the grasp of parental involvement.

You say the “mean girls” aren’t yet receiving social blowback for their behavior, but that could change as these kids grow and gain greater perspective on their experiences. If you are kind, loving, and inclusive to the kids you see being treated badly, and if those kids remain connected to one another, talking through and sharing their experiences, it is very likely that they will, over the ensuing years, develop the courage and perspective to stop letting the few mean-spirited kids in their circle dominate everyone’s emotions and experiences.

You may also, through talking with them, find out more about exactly how bad it makes them feel. And more importantly you will come to know exactly how much they want parents to do anything about it. Often times kids are working through a difficult social situation, and just as they are nearing resolution, here comes some heroic grown-up who just found out about it, swooping in and making everything one thousand times more dramatic than anyone needed it to be.

So my advice is that everyone should continue to stay on message. Bullying is wrong, meanness is hurtful. And that collective agreement may well be keeping the situation in your town from being a great deal worse. But pay close attention to the kids you think are victims. Tread lightly, but consistently. Give them opportunities to be heard, to processes, to be accepted, and to be loved. You’d be surprised what all can work out if you just do that well.

—Carvell