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GIRLFRIENDS' GUIDE TO FAMILY

Sugar and Spice but Not Always Terribly Nice

March 05, 2000|VICKI IOVINE

Dear Vicki: I am the mother of a daughter who is 11. Even though I am probably biased, I think anyone she knows would say she is a sweet and loving child. Here's my beef: The little girls in her class seem very catty and even mean. I can't count the number of times my daughter has come home from school in tears because of gossip or a mean remark from another girl. I have two boys, too, and I have always thought that girls were so much more sensitive and sweet to each other, but that isn't the case anymore. Is it my job as a mother to intervene on my little girl's behalf, or will I just make matters worse by butting in?

--ADVOCATE OR BUTTINSKY?

Dear Advocate: As the mother of two girls, and as a girl myself, I hate to admit it, but the social rigors of preteen interaction are more gory than anything the World Wrestling Federation has to offer.

Actually, I think that the interpersonal relationships of all children, boys and girls, gets pretty sophisticated by about third grade. This seems to be the time when kids start to understand the power of being accepted or not accepted by their peers.

You have to remember, young children are very literal: A friend is good, but a best friend is much better. This is also the time when little ones begin to recognize their differences--their strengths and weaknesses. Fitting in with the crowd is all your average 8- to 15-year-olds aspire to. Yes, there are some exceptional kids who are remarkably confident and proud of their individuality, but most of them are obsessed with being "as tall as," "as smart as" or "as popular as" the other kids.

I wish I could tell you confidently that this stage passes, but you and I both know that there are plenty of adults who still function on this level. I don't want to make broad gender generalizations, so let me speak from my own family experience. Triangular play dates with little girls are rarely successful. In other words, it's wiser to book a one-on-one play date or to invite three girls over to form a group of four, but three is just asking for bad news.

Boys, who tend to spend much less of their social time talking and working through their relationships with each other, especially before the age of about 10, seem to play fine with one, two or three buds at the same time. The only conflicts arise when there aren't enough PlayStation controls for everyone.

Some more experienced mothers have told me that "girls are just meaner than boys." I resist that way of thinking, being a girl myself, but I have noticed that girls, who are often more verbal than boys, have more sophisticated word weapons to sling at each other when they feel threatened or unloved by their crowd.

My daughters and their friends frequently zing one another with the old chestnut, "If you don't play only with me, you can't be my best friend." Poor things, little do they know how cherished and valuable it is to have as many great Girlfriends as you can speed dial in two hours to help get through the crises of life that await us!

Here's my best attempt at advice: Begin learning to butt out of your child's social life as soon as you know she can speak up for herself. The goal is for your daughter to gain the confidence of knowing that other silly girls can't be the boss of her. Your job is to talk about it with her as often as she likes.

Teach her tactics, like how she should remind the bossy girlfriend that there are other friends in the sea. Tell her also that what seems like mean behavior from a friend is usually just frightened or insecure behavior from a little girl who is afraid of losing her friend. Even a 6- or 7-year-old can understand that the "meanest" friends are usually the ones who want most to be friends.

That said, I state a caveat: If your child is being tortured and nothing you've done has worked, try going to the teacher or principal of the school. I don't recommend going to the other parents; my experience has shown that few parents can see their children as the little social snipers they can be.

In the meantime, keep your daughter's social groups growing; sign her up for dance or softball so she has other friends to turn to when things sour at school.

Vicki Iovine is the author of the "Girlfriends' Guide," a columnist for Child magazine and parenting correspondent for NBC's "Later Today." Write to her at Girlfriends, Southern California Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, L.A., CA 90053; e-mail GrlfrndsVI@aol.com.

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