Tuesday, 15 September 2015
I recently wrote about how our society makes it increasingly hard for girls to value and support one another and this got me to thinking about ways that we, as mothers, can help foster good relations amongst our growing daughters. We often take it for granted that girls will automatically want to nurture and support one another, but I think this is naïve, especially when we consider that they're growing up within a highly misogynistic world. Is it any wonder that they naturally seem to distrust, and all too often dislike one another? Sometimes, we have the expectation that if we just allow our daughters to mix with as many different girls as possible, both in and out of school, then they can be trusted to apply the standards of behaviour that we’ve set for them at home. Sadly, this demonstrably isn't always the case. Even the kindest and most caring girls can be capable of hurting and upsetting others, whether it's done deliberately, or is out of carelessness or a moment of thoughtlessness. How then can we help and support our girls to support one another? Here's some ideas.
Encourage your daughter and her friends to get together and make a binding friendship agreement that they will never, EVER, talk about one another behind each other's backs. This seems to be the single greatest evil amongst friendship groups; the thing that causes the most upset and arguments. It sows distrust between girls, is immensely upsetting for the girl who finds out she's the subject of the gossiping – which she will, because someone always blabs, thereby causing more stress. Let's encourage our girls to make a pact that this kind of behaviour is absolutely forbidden, and it's everyone's responsibility to uphold the pact. For tween girls it might be fun to cement the agreement by making friendship bracelets (which could be as simple as loom band ones), which all the girls wear to remind them of the pact, or it could be written down as a formal agreement, which all the girls sign. However they decide to do it, it's crucial that each girl understands that back-biting and gossiping is absolutely not on, and that the agreement to not do this is sacrosanct.
Watch your words.
So many disputes between girls seem to come about over seemingly nothing at all; someone makes what they think is a harmless remark, and the next thing someone has taken offence, girls take sides and someone inevitably gets sidelined. We might tell our girls to “be nice” and to “not be mean,” but perhaps it might be more helpful to give them a solid framework to help them work out exactly how to do this. Get them to consider whether or not their words are Kind, Truthful, and Necessary, and encourage them to get into the habit of thinking more carefully about what they say. They might think that Maddie really needs to know that her new jeans look like they're too tight for her, but it's certainly not kind to tell her so, and while it may very well be true, it's sure as hell not necessary! Also, sorry is one really powerful word. If genuinely spoken, it has the ability to diffuse an inflamed situation, add salve to a bruised ego and mend bridges. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for thoughtless or unkind behaviour is also a huge step to becoming a mature young woman, especially if it's done with sincerity with no caveats included. Heck, that's probably good advice for all of us!
Introduce the idea that girl time is both special and unique. While it can be argued that there is no definitive shared girlhood experience, there are undeniably some common denominators, the most overriding of which is that only girls know what it's like to not be boys. They've not grown up with the privilege of being born male, and have had to navigate their way through a world that overwhelmingly caters to and for the preferences and needs of males. It is a man’s world, and only girls know what that feels like, even if they're still too young to fully articulate what that means. Fostering within our girls a sense of pride in their sex and all that comes with it; be it periods, under-wiring or whatever, will also foster a sense of unity. Encourage your daughter and her friends to spend time together regularly that is just girl time, with no boys allowed, even via FaceTime or Instagram or whatever the method of contact usually is. Let her discover that girl only time can be immensely liberating, as it’s time freed from the pressure and potential performative friction that the company of boys can engender. No one is saying that boys are off limits; just that making space to spend time together to enjoy one another's company without this distraction is a really important and potentially sacred thing.
If they're going to learn to support one another, they need to get into the habit of respecting differences and affirming one another’s individual choices. During adolescence the pack or herd mentality is strong, and it can be really hard to chart your own course. It's doubly difficult when your friends don't back you up or even mock your choices. Girls need to learn to support one another by encouraging each other, and building each other up rather than doing what we’re encouraged to do by our nasty and misogynistic media, which is to knock each other down. Our girls aren't ignorant of celebrity culture; where young women are on the one hand praised for being highly sexualised, and on the other hand mocked for exposing too much flesh, and then admonished if they fail to live up to ridiculously high standards of beauty. They will have seen the covers of well known celebrity magazines where women are chastised and mocked for being too fat/too thin/too old/too pale/too made-up/not made-up enough – etc. They've absorbed the message that it's open season on women and our bodies, and it's our job to help them unpick this rubbish and not proliferate it with their friends.
Be the change...
Ultimately, we are our daughters’ first and most important influence. How we respond to other women, whether it's our friends, mothers, sisters, or that woman off the telly, is being absorbed and perhaps copied by our girls. We too have grown up in this sexist world, and thus, we’re sadly not immune to misogyny either. How we speak about ourselves, and about other women is really important. If we want our daughters to respect and enjoy the company of other girls, then we really need to practice what we preach, and model some womanly appreciation of our own. This even goes for that one girl in your daughter’s class who has been a thorn in her side ever since Reception year. Don't give in to the urge to verbally rip her to shreds after your daughter has come home from school (yet again) in tears after another barbed comment. Try to criticise the behaviour, rather than the girl herself, however hard this may be. So much of what happens between girls is a temporary glitch, all over and done with and forgotten by the following day. It may seem like the end of the world in the moment, but that's when we need to step in and remind them that these things happen; that friendship is worth fighting for and that they need to stick together. Always try and remember that while you're comforting your daughter (and silently cursing the one who upset her) another girl may well be doing the exact same thing with her mum. Our own child's perception of things isn't always entirely accurate.
With this in mind, it’s also a good idea to try to foster warm, cordial relationships with the mothers of your daughter’s friends. This might require you to be quite proactive if your child is in secondary school, as the parents don't mix as much as during the primary phase. Having a good relationship with other mothers means you can communicate directly if there are any on-going issues between girls, instead of inwardly festering about it, or immediately escalating it to a teacher; a sure-fire way to get someone's back up. Also, it sets a good example to your kids if they can see that their mums present a united front, and behave respectfully to one another.
Ultimately, this is a hard phase of development, both physically and emotionally. Few girls seem to emerge entirely unscathed from their secondary school experience, and for some, friendship with other girls and true sisterhood continues to elude them beyond school and into adulthood. What this tells me is that we need sisterhood more than ever, because for every twelve year old girl returning home from school today in tears, there's a doting mum handing over a tissue and worrying herself sick. We all want the same thing; happy, healthy, thriving girls. Let's work together to achieve this, and encourage our daughters to do the same.