/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Sat, Mar 4 2017
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  • Queen Bees and Wannabes: a parents' up-to-date guide to the perils of "girl-world"

    Queen Bees and Wannabes: a parents' up-to-date guide to the perils of "girl-world"

    It's been fifteen years since the first edition of educator Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes was published; now in its third edition -- updated with current, timely material about social media and other fast-moving subjects, as well as reflections from girls who were raised on the techniques in the previous editions -- the book is a compassionate, aware, and intensely practical guide to navigating the toxic, gendered lives of young girls in a diverse, politicized world.

    Wiseman starts from the observation that girls form cliques for many reasons, and many of them are healthy and supportive, but that these cliques can also be a hazard to the mental health, happiness, physical and sexual safety and educations of the girls at all levels of the social pecking order.

    The book begins with a theory that tries to explain why girls form these groups -- the need to fit in, or reject, or at least navigate, the feminine "ideals" that are imposed on them (and that they perpetuate). This theory runs through the book and is used as a tool to unpick the complex and difficult situations that arise when girls pressure each other into mean behavior, or exclude one another, or get in over their heads (it's also a tool that Wiseman uses to analyze the best of the intense friendships girls often form). Wiseman also applies a corollary of this theory to explain the way that boys interact with one another and with girls, but I get the impression that if you're interested in how this stuff applies to boys, you should read her book on the subject, Masterminds and Wingmen.

    But Queen Bees isn't a why book so much as it's a what and how book: as in "OK, my kid is inconsolable, or in trouble, or acting really viciously -- what do I do about it and how do I do it?"

    That's where Queen Bees shines: it's a book about how to get past your parental upset, fear and anger, and come up with compassionate, individualized strategies that parents and daughters can work through together (there's also material on dealing with the toxic parents in your kid's social circle, but again, Wiseman's written an entire book on this: Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. The advice contains few absolutes, and where they appear, they are surprising. Wiseman says that you should almost never be looking at (or spying on) your daughter's mobile devices (she makes an exception for imminent danger, such as a strong suspicion that she is being physically or sexually abused). But she does say that you should take away your kids' phones at bedtime and give them back in the morning.

    As I mentioned, this is the third edition, updated in 2016, and there's a lot of extremely practical, road-tested material that relates to the unique complications of life in this decade: what to do if your kid is the subject of a "So-and-so is a slut Facebook group" (or if your kid creates such a group!). These scripts and tools are interspersed with testimonials from aggressors, victims and parents of both who survived these experiences, reflecting on what worked.

    My daughter just turned nine and is starting to intersect with these issues. We've had a couple of bumps this school year (that's why a friend recommended the book to me). I finished reading it on a business trip and called my daughter from the road to discuss it with her and she made me promise to read some of it at bedtime when I returned.

    Queen Bees and Wannabes [Rosalind Wiseman/Harmony]


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    Notable Replies

    1. Back in the Dark Ages of my youth, the "mean girl" behavior started around fifth or sixth grade, really took off in middle school and settled into a established, less aggressive hierarchy in high school. Being one of the weird girls was hellish until about tenth grade, when the tension level eased, presumably because the social pecking order was set, not that I ever challenged it. I didn't really want to be part of the power cliques; I did really want to be left alone.

      Today I have a smart, quirky, seven-year-old daughter, and the "mean girl" s#%t started in KINDERGARTEN! She handled being excluded from the "Girls' Team" well enough then because her best friend was also excluded. In first grade they were in different classrooms, and the exclusion escalated to active hazing/bullying, reaching the point where she was so afraid of the other girls that she couldn't go to the bathroom at school. That was when she finally broke down and told me what had been going on.

      Terrifying for me as a parent is that at this young an age, she didn't tell me about what was going on because she had already accepted that this was normal. At this young an age she doesn't have the couple extra years of experience and emotional development that I had to be able to reframe this in a rudimentary way that she doesn't deserve this, that it's not ok. And what the hell is going on in the homes of the girls who are leading and their deputies? They are learning this somewhere.

      TL:DR I'm going to check this book out.

    2. Hell is other children.

    3. I teach 4th - 7th grade girls, at a school where the classes are gender specific by fifth grade. 6th grade is definitely the age a lot of this starts. One thing that makes it challenging as a teacher is how much the of the girl drama happens without us knowing. They hide it very well. And they're less likely to come to me about things, because I'm a man.

      Girl bullying is much more emotional, conniving and secretive than the boys version. Just a glance that says, "Seriously? You're sitting with HER?" can have a domino effect of aggression and pain. They use withholding and isolation a lot. I've had girls come to me about how terrible someone is treating them and at the end of our conversation, they'll plead with me to not say or do anything to make the aggressor dislike them. They always hope the mean girls will eventually like them.

      Even consoling a crying girl becomes a thing about social status. "No, I'M the one who gets to sit with her and hold her, because I know what happened. I was there and I know the whole story. You don't!" I once had a crowd of girls basically choosing sides in which of two crying girls they were going to huddle around. As I was trying to break it all up and get them to return to their seats and learning, a girl admonished me, "Sorry, but friendship comes before school!"

      I've been teaching a long time and I still don't know how to help them navigate this stuff, half the time. One thing I've learned though is that I have to be careful not to indulge the girls too much or they'll want more and more time to talk, complain, and get worked up about the situation. You have to firmly say, "We're done talking about this" at some point. I've also learned to tell girls that a lot of times there are no easy solutions or magic words to fix everything. Sometimes, you have to ride things out and hopefully learn a lesson that will help you with social issues in the future.

      About a week ago, my own, genuinely sweet 9 1/2 year old told her super close best friend (this year's model) that she wouldn't be her friend anymore. She's never talked that way before, but she was lashing out because of how time and attention were being divided in a three way friendship. A little off topic, but my wife taught me you should avoid three kid playdates, because it's easy to end up with two kids playing together and one kid getting marginalized.

    4. FWIW, she gave a talk at my daughter's school once, after the first book came out, and most of the parents at that talk (including me) were unhappy that someone with no solid research to back up her claims was making categorical statements that, for example, were simply not accurate in our specific school system. We felt our time listening to her was wasted. It seemed that her claims were based on her own personal observations, fleshed out a bit from what she'd heard from people she knew (which, by definition, would likely be people from a similar socio-economic viewpoint).

      She seems a Malcolm Gladwell type to me. It's probably worth borrowing her books to read, rather than paying for them, until you're sure they apply to your family situation.

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