It starts early- especially with girls. At the age of 3, I wouldn't call it bullying, but it's definitely hurtful. Somewhere along the line, whether it's from television, older siblings, or some genetically predisposed cell that says “I know how to hurt you” kids say mean things. In my daughter's case it started with 3 year olds saying, “I'm not having any play dates with you.” Then it moved to 'You're not invited to my birthday party.” After that it was “I won't be your best friend.” And most recently it was, “If you want to be popular, you need to dress this way, talk that way, and do whatever I do. If you don't you won't be popular.”
That first day of 1st grade, my daughter didn't even know what the word “popular” meant. She's one of those kids who is friends with everyone. Not attached to one or two specific people, not attached to either boys or girls. We had dealt with some of these things before. I had explained (with support from earlier teachers) that in pre-school, everyone is friends. I had explained that it's not up to the kids who to invite to a birthday party, but it's up to the moms. Most recently I had explained that if someone says you have to DO something to be their best friend, maybe that person is not really your friend.
So here we were. The first day of 1st grade talking about being popular. I first asked my daughter if she knew this girl's name. She didn't so when discussing this situation, I just called her “Popular Girl.” I asked her if she knew what “popular” meant. She didn't so I explained what it meant and said that you don't have to be a certain way or dress a certain way for people to want to hang out with you. Your friends are your friends. The result of Popular Girl's entrance into our lives was that my daughter was now requesting certain clothes and boots that look a certain way. She's always had an eye for fashion so I was open to her recognition of current style and offered to comply with her request. I asked her, “Is this what Popular Girl was wearing?” She said yes. I reminded her that you don't have to dress a certain way for people to like you. She said she knew that, but liked the clothes anyway. So I did a little shopping.
The next day, there was yet another interaction with Popular Girl. She gave my daughter the same criteria for people to like her. I asked my daughter if she knew this girl's name yet. “No” she said, so we kept on going with Popular Girl.” Today my advice to my daughter was similar: Your friends are your friends and that's it. Then I asked her, “Does Popular Girl have a lot of friends?” She said, not surprisingly, “No.”
The third day of school, I got the same report. Popular Girl had once again set the rules for how my daughter was to go about having friends. On this day, I did two things. The first was I asked my daughter if Popular Girl had an older sister. She immediately said, “Yes! What's her name?” I told her I didn't know, but after 3 days, I was getting the picture of where the clothing and influences were coming from. This girl dressed nothing like my daughter's friends and classmates- most of whom are the oldest in their families.
Finally, on the fourth day of the first week of 1st grade, I asked my daughter to do two things for me as we discussed Popular Girl. The first was to just ignore her and walk away and the second was to point her out to me. After school my daughter showed me who Popular Girl was and I was able to do two things. Confirm my thoughts about the influence of an older sister and also get her name.
As it turned out, my daughter was able to walk away. Not surprisingly Popular Girl made her way back to my daughter and they are now friends. However the first chance I had, I spoke to the teacher and told her the whole story. I went in to the school on day while the kids were at lunch so I would not be seen. This time I had the girl's name and was able to retell the story with the happy ending. The teacher was surprised and not happy about this occurrence in her classroom. She did address it with the whole class in that “nursery school” way of being able to say everyone is friends with everyone without embarrassing any particular child. To this day, my daughter does not know that I spoke to her teacher and neither do the kids. While I know it would show her my support, it would also give ammunition to the kids for teasing.
I'm lucky. My daughter is strong and confident. Right now. It may not always be that way. I've been dropped by 3 sets of friends in my life. The gathering of one's friends to go against another friend is one of the most difficult things we endure as people and I think girls are especially mean about it. It takes a strong person to get past it, and an even stronger one to forgive. My daughter has forgiven Popular Girl and they are now friends. I hope each child has learned something from this experience.