Teenage girls can be cruel, but pre-school age girls can be pretty darn cruel as well. I recently took my two year old, Arden, for a play date at a park with three other moms who all have four year old daughters. The four year old girls were friends since birth, regularly spent time together, and their moms considered them to be best friends. When I arrived at the park, I was appalled by what I saw. The girls were acting plain evil, saying things to each other like “I hate you,” “you’re ugly,” and I even witnessed one girl spit on another. Yes, spit. It’s critical to mention that these girls’ mothers are kind, religious, educated women- not the type that I ordinarily would have stereotyped as raising children who behave this way. The mothers were frustrated and intolerant of this behavior, routinely separating their daughters and threatening to leave the park if it continued.
This was my first dose of pre-school “Mean Girls” and it was daunting. I realize girls can be mean to each other, but never would have imagined it starting as early as four (and from what I’ve heard, even earlier). When I was in fourth grade, a fifth grade girl named Dana bullied me. My maiden name is Daku (pronounced Day-koo) and when I would walk into the school cafeteria for lunch, Dana would loudly and repeatedly chant in front of all the other kids, “Eeeew, It’s Daku.” It was mortifying. That was 25 years ago, and I still remember the feeling that overcame me when the clock struck “lunchtime” and I knew I’d be ridiculed on my way to the table. We’ve all had a Dana in our life, and at some point, we’ve probably been a Dana. The point is that you don’t easily forget the crappy way our Danas made us feel.
Back to the playground. Arden was unaffected by the Mean Girls, and was playing in a sand box with another child who was closer to her age. I watched her as she played and became consumed with her innocence because, at two, she doesn’t know the pain of being hurt or rejected. She only knows that she prefers to sleep with Mommy and Daddy, get goldfish crackers in her lunch, and wear her Minnie Mouse nightgown to bed.
Weeks after this play date, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Mean Girls and the reality that my daughters will eventually face the heartbreak of rejection. I wanted to know the best way to address the pain that they- and I- would feel when they were excluded from the lunch table, didn’t make cuts for a sports team, or weren’t invited to a birthday party. What would I say? What would I do? How would I be able to protect them? I combed over this issue for a solution ad nauseam with girlfriends who have young daughters and nobody could offer an easy answer other than “they’ll grow out of it.”
I think somebody else figured out the solution. A couple years ago, I stumbled upon Brene Brown, Ph.D. while watching a TED Talk about the power of vulnerability. Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness. In her recent book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she completely nailed the “what to do when my daughter is rejected” issue. Nailed. It. The solution is to sit with your daughter in the dark.
In the book, Brene’s adolescent daughter came home from school feeling hurt after repeatedly being one of the last kids picked for soccer teams at recess. Her daughter advised, “two popular kids are the captains and they pick teams… after all the cool kids are named, the popular kids decide to split the others. I’m always one of the others. I never get to be named.” As her daughter sat in her unlit bedroom crying, Brene resisted the urge to turn on the lights to alleviate her own discomfort and, instead, sat with her in the literal and emotional dark. She put her hand around her daughter’s shoulder and said, “I know what it’s like to be the other.” Brene and her daughter went on to connect about some of Brene’s own experiences in life when otherness was both powerful and painful. Fast forward several pages, Brene’s daughter used Brene’s example of empathy to connect with Brene when she was featured as one of “The Others” on a publicity poster for a speaking engagement. This opportunity for connection would have been lost if Brene wouldn’t have first sat with her daughter in the dark.
In our own lives, events like these are critical because they become “teaching moments” for our children to learn about the power of compassion and connection. Brene easily could have done what I likely would have done in a similar situation, which is to dismiss her daughter’s feelings by saying something to the tune of “if so-and-so isn’t picking you for the soccer team, then play tennis with so-and-so instead.” Or maybe I would have said, “it doesn’t matter what they think…” Or perhaps I would have instinctively regurgitated the biggest load of garbage that our parents told us about sticks and stones breaking our bones.
It will be easy if my daughters end up being resilient and unfazed by rejection, but if they are not, I don’t want to make them feel wrong or invalidated for caring. I don’t want to make them feel silly for not immediately “getting over it.” I want to help them understand that rejection is something that everybody faces. I hope there never is a “dark” for my daughters, but if and when there is, I dang sure am going to sit with them in it.
What are effective ways you’ve dealt with your children facing rejection?