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Cruel Ins and Outs of Girlhood Friendships

April 25, 1999|SANDY BANKS

They are feuding again, these fourth-graders . . . bickering and crying, whispering and laughing, tattling and taunting, in that strange dance that passes for friendship among girls in the early grades.

And my daughter--the shy, guileless, sensitive one--is in the middle of it this time, uncertain from day to day just who is on her side.

Does Jennifer really like her, or is it true that she just plays with her to get back at Andrea? Why is Karen so mean to her whenever Dianne is around? And why is she being ignored by the group, just because she ate lunch with Stephanie one day?

"It's so hard," she says, through her tears. "Why can't we all just get along?"


Her earnestness almost makes me smile. And I realize I'm a veteran mother when I can listen to her without my heart breaking, can dry her tears without fighting mine.

Because this is not my first trek through the girlhood field of friendship mines.

"This happened to your sister, too," I say, offering this up as reassurance to my forlorn middle daughter, who is pouting beneath the covers in my bed.

"Really?" she asks incredulously, trying to visualize her popular older sister in the throes of all this "I'm not playing with you today!" grief.

"What did she do? How did she get them to like her?"

And I wished it were that simple . . . that there were a road map you could follow. The truth, I know, is less comforting: You must struggle sometimes just to keep your balance as you try to make your way through the shifting sands of friendship's unpredictable terrain.

Her sister's friendship foundered in second grade, when her best friend took on a new best friend. The new girl didn't like my daughter. "So I can't play with you anymore," my daughter's old best friend announced one day. "So, you might as well go away."

And just like that, my daughter was cast out . . . condemned to join the refugees forced to wander the playground alone, in search of a place to stake their claim.

Naive, I tried to offer counsel: "Make new friends. There are plenty of girls in your class; you can find someone else to play with."

But, I learned, it was not that easy.

You see, she and Kristin had been inseparable since kindergarten. And among her classmates, the other best friend assignations already had been made.

There was a group that played tetherball at recess, but my daughter wasn't good enough to play. And a group who met at the oak tree at lunchtime but had no room for her, they said. And the girls who played on the monkey bars? They'd laughed at her cartwheels when she came by one day.

I counseled patience, preached about cliques, railed against their unkindness . . . and she kept coming home in tears.

Ultimately I told her to do what I did, when I was a kid and my friends ditched me: Just sit by yourself and read.

So I packed a book in her backpack each morning. And the tears stopped coming, but her bookmark's advance through the pages let me know she'd remained an outcast, spending recess alone on a bench.

By third grade, she was an avid reader . . . and a battle-scarred veteran of the war that can rage when friendships divide.


It's a rite of passage for girls, a growing pain, these shifting loyalties and their accompanying Sturm und Drang.

"Some days the girls come in from lunch so upset about what-this-one-said-to-that-one and 'How come she won't play with me anymore?' we can't get anything done until we settle them down," says my friend, who teaches second grade.

"It's something you don't see as much with the boys," she adds. "They seem to move around much more fluidly. They play, they fight, they get over it. Or find somebody else to play with. They don't drag it around with them, letting it ruin their day."

With three daughters, I have faced many ruined days and have found no means of perfect comfort.

To trust, after all, means to risk betrayal. To give your heart to a friend means investing emotionally. The return is sometimes loyalty, sometimes tears, sometimes pain.

Meanwhile, my middle daughter is soaring from despair to happiness on someone else's swing. I hear her on the telephone:

"Me? Really? Lemme ask my mom." She's breathless as she covers the receiver and blurts out the news. She's invited to a sleepover, by the very girls who had run her away earlier that day.

"Please, Mommy," she says. "I really want to go."

And I say yes and try to put aside my worries. After all, you can't learn about friendship the easy way.


Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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