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Sandy Banks

How Should Parents Handle Kids' Feud? Don't

September 15, 2002|Sandy Banks

The summer has passed, the kids are back in class, their lunch table cliques have reconvened. The girls seem to have patched up their differences, yet their mothers still don't speak.

They passed one another awkwardly, as they walked their daughters to class last week; once friendly women eager to chat, now looking away so eyes don't meet.

Their daughters cannot help but notice. It was their feud that turned their moms against each other. But they've moved on ... and their mothers haven't.

"I can't believe they're still not speaking," one child proclaims, rolling her eyes to convey her disdain. "It's, like, over. Stop being mad. Don't they have anything else to do?"

And I wonder, in this tableau of parent and child, who is teaching what to whom?

It is one of those tales from the world of girls that can stand for anything you want it to, depending upon where you sit and through what prism you view it.

Two fifth-grade girls feud. One says she's fed up with being bossed, accuses her friend of manipulation. "I've decided I don't want to be your friend anymore," she tells the girl she views as her tormentor.

The other girls in their group have grievances too, so when they are called on to take a stand, they gang up to denounce her too. "We can't be friends," they say. "You're out of the group."

Their pronouncement reduces her to tears. She is stunned, hurt, then repentant. Later, she sobs out the tale to her parents, who handle things the way grown-ups do. They comfort their daughter, then call the mothers. They suggest a meeting after school, where the girls can work out their differences.

But these differences will not be worked out; not then, not under the watchful eyes of mothers and a teacher who's there to mediate. While the mothers wait outside, the teacher encourages the girls to talk and is stunned by their ferocity. The accusers sound so petty and cruel, dredging up offenses from second grade. The outcast begs pitifully for a reprieve. Everyone cries, but no one budges.

The mothers peer through a window into the classroom, ears pressed to the door to hear. They argue among themselves over whose child is at fault, whose is hurting the most. Each sees different victims and villains and interprets the story to fit their beliefs:

It's a symbol of the corrosive power of cliques, an example of "relational aggression," the new buzzword for the social jousting among girls that occurs on schoolyards every day. Or it's simply the outcome of a clumsy attempt by a group of young girls to stand up for themselves and define social boundaries.

And the mothers? They are protective and caring, trying to enforce standards of civility. Or they are over-invested in their daughters' lives, trying vainly to keep childhood trouble-free.

It's a story I'm close enough to relay with some familiarity. Still I can't say who's right or wrong, only that the anecdote fits neatly into our new preoccupation with girl bullying--the label we now apply to the heartbreaking rituals that have always shaped girls' sociability.

But is kicking someone out of the friendship club the same as stealing lunch money or making the fat kid the butt of jokes? Is it always meanness that prompts girls to lash out, or sometimes confusion and insecurity? We teach them these days to stand up for themselves, to own their feelings and stake their claims. And we have to accept that sometimes they'll stumble as they try to find a space between being a doormat and being a bully.

I stumbled when I was in fifth grade, and I might not have recovered if my mom had gotten in the way. A friend and I were on the outs with a girl from our circle. There was nothing she had done wrong. We were as uncool as she, but we longed for a taste of exclusivity.

So we shaded our eyes when she came near and promised not to say her name. (Karen became Nerak--her name backward--whenever we had to speak of her.) We ignored her in class, on the playground, at lunch. She got the message and began staying away. But by sixth grade, we'd grown beyond the rancor. Over time, Nerak and I became close friends--a friendship that's lasted to this day.

Our mothers were friends and remained close through it all. They probably never even knew of our troubles. If they did, they never got involved.

If you were ever a girl, this might sound familiar. Part of growing up--then and now--is learning the steps to the friendship dance. We can counsel our daughters through it, but there's not much we can do to smooth the path.

Plenty of us have enough trouble managing grown-up friendships. Like our children's, they have uncertain contours and shifting landscapes. Sometimes we hurt our friends, sometimes they hurt us.

It's a rite of passage, a growing pain, and unless someone threatens bodily harm, parents often do best staying out of the way.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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