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JoAnn Deak on "the mean scene"

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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Don’t Wannabe Mean, Just Wannabe Meaningful

JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., Author of GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS

What I’m worried about is the present swing of the pendulum in the direction of looking at girls as a subset of boys, and not as a subset of the human species. Two of the most popular recent books –and subsequently a vast array of media attention — have depicted the school life of adolescent girls as a female type of Columbine. The main difference is in the choice of weapons: instead of fists and guns, girls use their mouths and words to create a cruel and harassing social hierarchy.


Whatever makes it to the attention of the national scene certainly has to be riveting or controversial. This often means that it is only the tantalizing part of a larger, more normal story. And, in the case of the social milieu of teens, I would argue that is the case. However, there wouldn’t be such widespread resonance with parents and teens if there weren’t a decent-sized grain of truth in this portrayal of the social scene of girls.

What I’d like to suggest is that we keep the pendulum in the middle and understand the “mean scene” in a larger context of what life is like for girls, but more importantly, what life can be like if parents and teachers and girls want it to be.

The grain of truth is this: it really matters to girls if they fit in, are liked, and have a place in the social and school community. I have put forth the case in my books that this is a natural and needed part of the female species, based in part on the evolutionary fact that women need to be somewhat pre-programmed to care and be connected to other humans. This is the basis of human survival. Roughly translated, whether a girl is strong and independent or not, she has very strong feelings and is somewhat driven to belong.

At the same time, brain research is showing clearly that the development of language and all of its nuances of use happens much earlier for girls than boys. Combine these two girl ingredients, and you have a sub-set of the species that cares about affiliating with others, and that therefore often develops great sensitivity for reading the social scene as well as having early and rich language to communicate. So, yes, girls can and do get hurt very much by the behavior and words of others, and can and do use their language for interactional purposes.

But these skills and tendencies of girls can push them to the other side of the behavioral continuum: caring, giving, understanding and accepting. Just watch a movie with a group of girls, and you will hear murmurs of positive emotions when someone is saved or loved, or stands up for another human being. One of the first schools to respond to the travesty of girls [and boys] not having access to education in Afghanistan was a girls’ school. A seventh-grade girl told me the story of how one of her teachers announced the grades of tests publicly in class, and the same few students who had real trouble with learning always felt humiliated. This girl [who had no problem with grades] raised her hand and said that she felt this practice was not helpful for learning. Now, she could have been more political and done it privately, but she also knew that a public statement would have more clout. She also knew she might be socially ostracized for doing this. But her comment to me was that she just couldn’t stand watching an injustice, and it was worth it.

I talked to this girl about all of the social injustices that she sees every day at the hands of her peers. Did she do something about those? She looked at me with very tired eyes and said, in essence, that she could only go to the mat for so many things, and it had to be “worth it.”

All of this is by way of saying that, yes there is an issue of social meanness and pain, but with some work at home and at school, there is great potential for the pendulum for girls to swing more into the middle, balancing caring for others with the unavoidable social conflict that happens in groups. Parents and teachers can help girls draw the line in the sand: I want to be popular and belong, but I also care so much about others that there are some clear restrictions on how gruesome I’ll let the social scene get. Programs that teach girls how to deal with conflict are very effective. Parent programs that help parents (especially mothers) back off from unwittingly participating in pushing their daughters to be popular can have very clear results. And, most promisingly, schools and social groups that move adolescents outside of their own skin or social milieu by helping others or trying to impact regional or national issues dilutes social nastiness and moves the focus more positively to a larger social scene and human interaction.

The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools had, as their June national conference theme, helping girls to be global citizens. They know that when a girl helps build a school in El Salvador, for instance, that what Suzie said about me in math class fades in importance. And when an eighth grader helps a dyslexic third grader to read, she feels more powerful to deal with the toxic few who call her a “goodie-goodie”.

These are just a few ways of impacting the “mean scene,” and there are many more. The point is that it takes some effort on the part of adults to give children the opportunities to broaden their focus, and also to stand up for what is right in terms of interaction with others. It also takes convincing the media to look at what to do and what can be done to make lives more positive for girls, and not just reporting upon the sensational negative aspects of their growing years.

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