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My Daughter Is a Mean Girl

Caucasian girls whispering while waiting for school bus
Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images

It’s 5:15 p.m., right about sunset here in Southern California, and I’m racing to get dinner on the table so the kids can meet up with their friends. The pasta’s boiling on the stovetop and the vegetables are roasting in the oven. I figure I’ll pop open my laptop and fire off one last work email.

Instead, I discover this in my inbox:

Sorry to be a "downer," but I think we all need to talk to our daughters … about the meaning of friendship and what it means to be a good friend and what it means to be a "mean" friend.

The e-mail, from my friend, Robin, is addressed to me and my neighbor, Vanessa (I’ve changed names to protect privacy). I gulp. Robin, Vanessa and I have been batting this problem around since our girls started 3rd grade in August, and it looks like, despite all our discussions and interventions, the issue has taken a turn for the worse.

And this, unfortunately, is the issue: my daughter, S., and Vanessa’s daughter, M., are not being nice to Robin’s little girl.

They whisper secrets in front of her. They look at her and giggle. They leave no room for her at the lunch table. When she tries to join their play, they tell her they need their “special time,” just the two of them, on their own (this from two girls who walk to school together every morning and play together nearly every afternoon).

Before you can have a clique, you apparently have to be sophisticated enough to form one.

It would be one kind of problem if S. and M. didn’t like Robin’s daughter, I. But she’s one of S.’s closest friends. S. and I. went to preschool together. They have three-hour play dates every Tuesday afternoon. Until this fall, they were inseparable at school as well. The routine was, S. played with I. at school and M. at home.

Then 3rd grade started and something shifted. These days, the girls are truly flummoxed. They want to have more than one friend, but aren’t sure how to do it. So they pick—first I’m with you, then I’m with you. S. tells me she even tried to set up a schedule for her friends (M. on Monday, I. on Tuesday, the new girl, T., on Wednesday, etc.), to make it as fair as possible, but the project suffered from lack of buy-in.

So she stuck with M. and now I. is in tears.

I remember cliques of my childhood and adolescence as popping up whole out of nowhere, like Athena bursting fully formed from Zeus’s head. But what I see with S. and her friends is that even cliques—those awful girl-monsters with one body and way too many heads—even they are a sign of maturation. Before you can have a clique, you apparently have to be sophisticated enough to form one.

Vanessa and I end up telling our girls that if they cannot include other girls in their play at school, we will forbid them to play with each other at home. S. cries and screams at me, insists I “don’t understand.” But the next day, she and M. end up playing with I., and B., and T., and “it was the best recess EVER.”

I know I may yet hear from Robin again on this subject. But for right now, we’ve cracked the smallest window open in our daughters’ heads, and a bit of light is coming in.

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