Mean Girls at Any Age

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“One recent survey of 273 third graders in Massachusetts found that 47 percent have been bullied at least once; 52 percent reported being called mean names, being made fun of or teased in a hurtful way; and 51 percent reported being left out of things on purpose, excluded from their group of friends or completely ignored at least once in the past couple of months.” (“The Playground Gets Even Tougher”, New York Times, 10/8/2010)

In my improv class last night, three women were asked to act out a scene in which they were coworkers around the watercooler. It didn’t take long for their characters to turn into mean girls, plotting to take down their poorly dressed coworker.

It struck me in that moment that mean girls exist way beyond our school days. They may wear the guise of a mature adult, but there are still office cliques and book club cliques and mommy cliques.

According to recent research, it’s not just that mean-girl behavior lasts longer—it starts earlier too. While social aggression used to start around fifth grade, now it can take hold as early as kindergarten.

Yikes. There’s no safe place. At a time when headlines are full of teen suicides due to bullying, it’s just plain terrifying.

In fifth grade I was the victim of a BFF-turned-mean-girl. My best friend decided that she didn’t like me anymore. We had been inseparable until one day when she decided that wait, never mind, she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. After a month it was “wait, never mind, we are BFFs again.” If memory serves, this happened twice in that same year. Luckily, I’ve mostly blocked it out.

Then, of course, there was the infamous letter my friend wrote me during the summer between seventh and eighth grade.

The worst part? For most of my youth, I was one of the popular kids. What could it have been like for the kids who had a harder time socially? I don’t even want to know.

What I do know is that female relationships are fragile, especially when girls are young. They can be flipped upside down with no warning. “Oh, yesterday we were best friends? Too bad, today I hate you.”

I’m not a mom, so I can’t speak to this from any anecdotal place, but according to sources in this article, many of the mean girls come from mean moms. Mean moms who encourage their daughters’ exclusivity.

It’s scary to think—and almost too hard to believe—that mothers might reinforce this kind of behavior. It’s enough to make a would-be mom (one day, that is. I have no announcements here) run in the opposite direction… How? Why? Whaaat??

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really don’t get it. Many of you are moms… can you enlighten me? Have you seen other mothers encourage their daughters’ mean-girl behavior? Have you seen moms behave as mean girls themselves?


Filed under The Hard Facts, The Old Days

17 responses to “Mean Girls at Any Age

  1. Noemi

    My future stepdaughter is in 7th grade, and I have seen this “mean girl” behavior in her and her friends since I met her when she was in 5th grade. One day her friends are having a sleepover at our house, another day they dump her and make sure she knows they are doing things without inviting her.

    I don’t know many of the mothers well in this group because I am a NY transplant to this area, but I have heard many of them talking at school events and such, and I’m usually taken aback by how cutting their comments about other moms can be. (In fact, as the newbie who is dating the ex-husband of one of their crowd, I’m almost positive that they are not saying the most pleasant things about me when I move out of hearing distance!!). So, yes. I do think these women pass along the “mean girls” routine to their daughters, but I’m not sure how to prevent my stepdaughter from becoming just another mean girl. It’s kind of sad.

    I have a son in 3rd grade, but for the most part, I don’t find the same type of issues among the boys that I have seen in the girls.

  2. Jennifer

    It’s a slippery slope, though, isn’t it? I don’t like to admit this, but I sometimes catch myself playing the “mean girl” role. I’ll be chatting with a coworker, who isn’t really quite a friend, and there will be an awkward lull in the conversation. At those times, when I don’t know what else to say, I’ll let my cattiest, ugliest side come out to play. It’s almost like we don’t know another way to communicate with other women. When all else fails, break out the bitchery.

    • pamela

      Bitchery is definitely a sad way of relating to other women. We’re so prone to being catty towards one another that when we’re with someone who we aren’t exceptionally close with our best bet is to say what we think everyone else is thinking but too polite to say.

  3. Beth

    Have you heard of the website/movement started by Amy Poehler and her bff’s? It’s called Smart Girls at the Party: Change the world by being yourself.

    It celebrates pre-teen girls and their uniqueness to hopefully stop some of the bullying/mean girl behavior that seems to be inevitable. I thought it was genius. Makes me like Amy P. all the more!

  4. Natalie

    Yes, I have seen girls encouraged by their moms to be mean to other girls.

    One particular memory was from junior high. Two best friends tried out for the cheerleading squad. There were a few spots open for new girls and unfortunately both of them did not make it. The one who did not make it was furious and started saying horrible things about the girl who made the team. Then the mom of this same girl would say things to the winning girl. Of course the mom of the winning girl had to get involved to defend her daughter and ask for a show of good sportsmanship. You could tell at church (they went to the same one) that the animosity was enormous. The winning girl’s mom moved to a new location due to her husband’s career and the cheerleading daughter again made the team in her new school. She also went on to college to study dance and become a cheer and dance coach for a college and then for her own daughters competition teams. She still does it today (almost 30 years later).

    The mom who moved away eventually moved back to the little town years later. Now both moms are in the same town. I wonder if the four of them have all spoken peacefully after all these years. I have kept in contact with all of them, but have never asked about their status as friends among each other.

    I remember seeing a movie years after my friends had their fallout. It was about a jealous mom who killed another girl on the cheer squad for the same reason (her daughter didn’t make the team).

  5. Suzannah

    O’ how funny …Natalie refered to the cheerleader mom who, actually paid someone to kill her daughter’s cheer rival’s mother…. she did not suceed ….I only know that because I am close friends with her family….
    Here the most common thing I see that moms do to encourage exclusive behaviour is two or more mothers will decide to dress their daughters matching for some event…in something so cute , that it promotes a sense of have/ have not in the other girls…I know some women see no problem at all with this type of behaviour but to me it creates a group with in a group.
    I am a director of a girls group, and had a mom buy matching monogramed pj’s for only 4 girls going to camp as a group…can’t tell the headaches that caused me!!!

  6. Crister

    I’m not a mom, but I am a daughter with a mother who would rank among THE KINDEST on earth. Hopefully someday, my daughter would be able to say the same thing.

    During elementary school, I recall some of the mothers of girls in my school behaving meanly and catty to other women… and YES, their daughters were the mean girls. 20+ years later, those daughters are now mothers themselves… and I only hope that their daughters are not becoming a 3rd generation of mean girls.

  7. I was not at all one of the popular kids, so I spent pretty much my entire childhood and much of my adolescence being made fun of, bullied and excluded from things. I was shy, overweight, wore a back brace, got good grades and was in the band, so I guess that made me an easy target. My mom, who faced the same issues as a child, was my biggest support through all of it, reminding me every single morning to not take any crap from the girls in my class and helping me see that some of the things that these girls made fun of were actually good qualities to have.

    Most of my friends today were in similar situations as kids, so I guess we were drawn to each other. But I still see this kind of crap happening. There’s cliques in my office, and it does make me feel exactly as frustrated and hurt as it did when I was a kid, which sucks because I know better now.

    If nice girls come from nice moms, it only stands to reason that mean girls come from mean moms. Where could they learn the behavior if not from their parents?

  8. I’m not a mom, so can’t speak to that. But while reading your post, I immediately thought of Bravo’s Real Housewives series.

    What started as one series has now blossomed into, what, four or five at this point? And why is that? Because we watch it. We seek the drama, the petty catfights, the moments where we can say, “Oh my God, how tacky!” and feel like we’re living our lives in a much kinder way.

    But for the majority of the time, we’re not. (I’m guilty, too, I know.) I think our acceptance of this behavior (and by watching each week, that is to accept it) only perpetuates it.

    We need to focus on love and acceptance. If you have children, teach them to be kind. But your teaching won’t work unless you’re serving as an example.

    My parents used to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That’s not helpful and it never worked. If you live your life in a meaningful way, you don’t have to do anything special for younger generations to admire you and aspire to be like you.

    Next time we want to gossip, bully or cut people out, perhaps we take a moment to ask ourselves how we’d feel if we were the subject of the gossip, the target of the bullying or the outcast of the group. Not so nice, is it?

  9. Sarah

    I don’t know about the moms perpetuating this, but I see it in students at my school all the time (all the way down to our 4- and 5-year-old PreK students). If I had a penny for every time I heard “You’re not my best friend, s/he’s my best friend” It makes me sad.

    But at the same time, I have to laugh at some of it. (not in front of them, obviously) Like when I went to find out why the kindergarten girl was crying, and was told “She walked away and broke my heart!”

  10. You are certainly right about the mean girls starting early. My daughter who is four attended a birthday party recently. When my daughter tried to hug the birthday girl, she pushed her away and made a mean face. The mother did nothing to admonish her, almost thinking her reaction was cute. I do agree with mean moms generating mean kids.

  11. I think a lot of moms really don’t have any idea what their daughters are doing. I honestly don’t know much about what goes on at D.’s school unless I’m volunteering or it’s something big enough that she’s upset/excited.

    It is true that friend drama between females doesn’t ever really go away.

  12. I am not a mom but I’ve read the book “Queen Bees and Wannabees” that the movie Mean Girls was based on. This is my take on it: Moms tell us to make our beds and clean our rooms and can become angry at us if we don’t behave. Young girls see this as “mean”. Moms are models for our behavior so if we hear them talking smack about someone we do it too. I know moms are definitely not knowingly encouraging this behavior. Moms cant be perfect but their behavior definitely has an impact on how we behave.

  13. Allison

    I’m not a mom, but both my parents set great examples for me in this regard.

    I had a horrible time in elementary school — not so much bullied, but excluded constantly. It didn’t get really bad until 6th grade, when the one friend I could count on moved away. I can’t count how many times I came home in tears, and I know it must’ve hurt my parents terribly to see me so unhappy. Maybe they had private, murderous thoughts towards those kids and their parents — but I’ll never know for sure, because the main lesson that they got through to me was, “Remember how this feels. There will be times when you have the power to make someone else feel like this, and you’ll be able to choose not to.”

    And my mom, to this day, is friends with many of the moms of those girls who made my life miserable.

    • Allison,

      What your parents told you, “Remember how this feels. There will be times when you have the power to make someone else feel like this, and you’ll be able to choose not to,” is such GREAT advice. I can think of many times even in my adult life now where this will be useful.


  14. Rachel, I am so sorry to hear your story of bff-turned-into-mean-girl. I had exact same experience and it was devastating and I, too, was one of the popular kids. I remember spending a long long time trying to figure out what went wrong and ended up feeling extremely confused and isolated.

    I think mean moms are very powerful in terms of shaping their daughters’ behaviors. This is so SAD!

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