When my daughter Risa entered third grade this year, several moms with daughters older than mine warned me about the ugly social politics about to kick in, which would arrive by spring. Boy, were they right. Around April, I started noticing an uptick in Risa's stories about girls in class hurting each other's feelings intentionally. I'm not talking about bullying, mind you, but the sophisticated passive-aggressive techniques girls have used for decades (centuries?) to make their peers doubt themselves.
There is the "friend" who will ask Risa for her "opinion" on a specific matter and then delight when Risa is wrong, even bringing teachers over to provide proof. There is another "friend" who is happy to play with Risa but will literally walk away the second a better friend comes along, leaving Risa stranded and perplexed on the playground. Oh, and then there's the "friend" who announced over email repeatedly that she was having tons of fun with a mutual friend during a sleepover. (Does she really need to take time out of her sleepover to broadcast this?) I also don't know if Risa is entirely innocent of these social crimes, which is why I always try to make these moments teachable lessons. I want her to know this type of behavior is unacceptable, while giving her various ways to stand up for herself.
Flash to a few weeks ago when a school mom told me -- on the playground no less -- that she would be traveling internationally with her family for several weeks this summer. Wow, I replied, that's impressive. I asked her how it tends to go when they travel for so long together as a unit of three. "Oh it's easy," she responded, "we all do really well together." I told her, truthfully, that if my husband and daughter and I went away for several weeks, one or more of us would quite possibly run away. I find when vacationing as a threesome, someone in the family always feels a little out; it's the nature of three. She shrugged her shoulders and gave a look that seemed to say "Oh, that's sad."
I told a couple of my close friends that story later in the day, spelling out detail by detail like I was back in third grade; this wasn't the first time I got caught in this woman's web of bragging. Yes, yes, I knew she was likely trying to mask something because nobody in the world (not even moms on strong meds) thinks vacationing for weeks as a family without any break is easy. But even knowing that, I felt pissed off; here I was offering a little vulnerable piece of myself and she used it to make me feel dumb. That's not cool. We all need to open up about parenting hurdles and offer support and possibly strategies, not shrugs and looks of pity.
So I was grateful when my friends said the only thing that I wanted to hear in that moment: "How rude!" They didn't try to walk me through the situation or explain what I could have done differently or make me drum up empathy for this woman. They knew that at this particular second I needed to hear that this mom was being a jerk. The next day, I was over it and even did experience a little empathy pang for this woman because it feels crappy to always pretend that everything is peachy.
I'm going to try to remember this the next time that Risa comes home telling me how some girl at camp snubbed her or made a mean comment about her kickball abilities or tried to steal her close friend during swim lessons. Instead of diving into the solutions, I will say "Man, that must have felt horrible" or "That stinks!" and give her a hug. Teasing out learning lessons, as important as that is, can wait. The empathy and validation of our child's feelings should come first.
I am a journalist, filmmaker, author, wife, and mom to an 8-year-old daughter. My most recent project is I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms. Other projects explore raising only children, happily ever after, raising strong girls, and hot topics for Jewish women.
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