Rosalind Wiseman stepped on a media land mine when an article about her work with cliques was featured in the New York Times Magazine. Entitled “Mean Girls and the New Movement to Tame Them,” it discussed Wiseman’s work with the Empower Program, where she taught junior high girls about nasty social behaviors and how to stop them. “It was an extraordinary, mind-blowing experience,” Wiseman says of the media fallout that followed the article. “I got responses from all over world—from England, Ireland, Australia, multiple requests from movie companies, and the Times got hundreds of letters. The emotional response has been unbelievable—we’re finally acknowledging what we do to each other.” Her book on the topic, Queen Bees and Wannabes, is a seminal work in the field of girl bullying. We had a chance to hear from Rosalind Wiseman on cliques.
Cliques No Worse Than Ever
“We like to think that girls’ cliques are worse today than they used to be, but I know that’s not true. While writing the book I was struck by how universal an experience this seems to be, but it’s a universal experience that no one talked about. I had 60- and 30-year-old women follow me around at parties to tell me about clique incidents as if they had just happened yesterday—all the girls’ names are still right there. They told me about situations identical to the ones I’m working with right now. So yes, I think this kind of behavior has always been around. It may start a little younger than it used to. Girls are sexualized at a younger age and will deal with these friendship issues at a younger age too. I see 8-year-old girls, even 4-year-old girls, anointing certain friends and excluding others.
“There are always going to be Queen Bees, even in the poorest schools. But typically the wealthier a community is, the more of a problem this is.
“One thing that is worse today is the way parents behave. I think that today’s parents are either micromanaging their kids’ lives or they are totally out of the picture, which is equally problematic. Kids in these cases will do anything to create space or get the appropriate attention.
“But I fundamentally disagree with some critics, who say worrying about clique behavior represents micromanaging kids’ social lives. Instead, every time you deal with one of these friendship issues it’s a teaching moment about ethics. It’s at these moments that your kids realize what you stand for.”
How to Handle It
“The whole issue of mean girls touches a nerve with parents, especially with mothers. Women are in such turmoil about how to raise assertive, strong women. Yet in our efforts to raise girls with high self-esteem, we sometimes lose sight of the importance of kindness. In schools I’ve worked in, I’ve seen girls with very high self-esteem who are really, really nasty.
“As a parent, one of the hardest things to do is to decide how to handle these situations. It’s a rite of passage for kids and parents. Should you wade in, do nothing, or stand there and cheerlead behind her but let her fight for herself?
“I think that unless a child is in a very serious situation, you should encourage her to stand up for herself, with her skills in place. By that I mean that parents should affirm their daughter and her courage, and then help her think through how to deal with the situation. Have her write it down, and decide what the most important issue is. The best strategy is usually for a girl to get the bully away from the other girls, describe to her what’s happening, what she needs to happen differently, and have the bully affirm her.
“In other words, parents should be their daughter’s cheerleader, but not take care of her business. If she can face this, she can face anything. Dealing with a girl bully will give her practice for someday having to deal with an inappropriate boss.”
Setting the Stage for Talk
“To let her know it’s okay to tell you about clique problems, say something like, ‘Hey look, lots of times it’s normal to have problems with friendships. If you ever have a problem with that, I’ll help you or we can get you an ally, like an aunt or an older friend, to help you.’ Then you run away. Plant the seed and run away.
“Another thing girls are going to encounter at adolescence is what I call the “fruit cup girl,” named after a girl who once pretended—in order to impress a boy—to be incapable of opening her fruit cup. We’re always going to have to educate girls about this kind of thing. You can’t stop your daughter from having those experiences, but you can give her a head’s up before it slams her in the face. You could say something like this: ‘You might see girls act silly and not as smart when around boys, and it might make you feel bad. When that happens, come to me and we’ll talk about it. Think about why the girl is doing it and how you feel.’ Check in with her regularly.
“When do kids tell me they will reach out to their parents? The number one time is in the car while the parent is driving. Girls also tell me that if they try to get alone with their mom, it’s usually because they need to talk. Even if they say it isn’t a big deal, it is. They need at that moment to check in with her.
“One final point about talking with girls. Sometimes parents ask questions that are actually springboards to asserting what they think or feel. They say, ‘How’s it going with Amy?’ because they want to say they don’t like her. In cases like these, your daughter will shut down. Keep in mind that talking with her is not an opportunity to force-feed her your opinions.”
Holding Her Accountable
“Unfortunately, it’s really the exceptional parent who holds his or her child responsible for bad clique behavior. Recently I heard of a woman who found out that her daughter was behind all the nastiness going on in the girl’s fifth grade class—the girl was totally the Queen Bee—and this mom believed the principal even though she was shocked. She talked to her kid and withdrew her privileges, which mostly meant taking away her means of communication–instant messaging and e-mail. And that really hurts a girl that age. But sadly, I’ve found that it’s rare for most parents to hold their kids accountable for these unacceptable behaviors.
“The hardest work for me is dealing with a Queen Bee girl and a Queen Bee mom. Then I’ve got two people who don’t like me. Those operating from a position of privilege don’t like to be told they should change, nor do they believe there really is a problem. It’s the kids on the outside who know the most about a school’s social hierarchy.
“Over and over again I have been struck by parents’ inability or unwillingness to apologize to other parents for their kids’ behavior. It really hurts parents’ relationships with each other at the worst possible time. Kids may start lying to you when they’re teens, and if those parent friendships dry up, you’ll be cut off from knowing what’s going on, making it harder for you to keep your own girl safe.
“The bottom line? Affirm her and hold her accountable. That’s my best advice to parents. You don’t always have to like your kids, you have to parent them. If you find yourself asking, Who is this child? don’t feel guilty. If your girl does something mean, she’s not necessarily a mean person and you’re not a bad parent.
Queen Bees Don’t Have It Made
“One thing to remind your daughter is that lots of girls in the Alpha group don’t want to be there; it’s very confining. Most people look at the “it girl” and think she’s got it all. I look at her as being stuck in solitary confinement, so tied to stereotypical femininity that she has no choices in life.
“What’s especially sad is that those girls in the Alpha clique are so vulnerable to early sex, drinking, drugs, and even abuse. That’s because they need to keep the Alpha boy for status, even if he’s abusive. Often these girls know their lives are a house of cards, which makes them anxious, and so they self-medicate.
“Girls who are on the outside of the box are much more likely to be successful and authentic. They are not frauds, not always pleasing others. Remind your girl that there are true costs to being popular.”
When All Else Fails
“Outside activities, such as theater or sports, can be an excellent way to help girls remember that there’s life outside junior high or high school. On the other hand, some of the worst cliques I’ve seen have been in regional soccer teams—the girls and parents both. In fact, any time you have parents inappropriately involved in kids’ social status, bad stuff happens.
“Changing schools should be the last resort. You want your daughter to know that she can figure this out, and that you’re not fighting her battles for her. But if the school turns a blind eye, or even seems to be helping create a bad social environment, you may have to pull her out of school.
“If she’s unable to get her work done, if she’s so distracted she can’t focus—or if your gut tells you she’s really in trouble, trust it, and intercede.
“The bottom line is to remember that parents do matter. You might feel rejected over the next few years, but you are essential to your daughter navigating adolescence safely.”
Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons