Sometimes we wonder why women don’t outnumber men in politics. After all, most of us have been practicing those skills since birth.
Anyone who has ever been a girl — or spent time with one — knows that Girl Land is full of complex, unwritten rules and political maneuvering that would put Parliament Hill to shame. Every day, pre-teen and teenage girls cope with hormonal swings, shifting social norms, and the expectation that they will be nice and never, ever “bossy”. In response, many girls channel their feelings and their ambitions into behaviours that baffle the adults around them.
They gossip. They throw subtle insults. They exclude each other. They swing rapidly from affectionate to hostile, seemingly for no reason. The turn on each other, despite their moral objections, in order to maintain their own status with the “Queen Bee” — the girl who holds ultimate power in their clique.
You might know the culprits as Mean Girls. Some of them outgrow it eventually. Some don’t.
For parents, caregivers and educators, Girl Land is a scary and confusing place. When girls allow us to peek inside their group dynamics, we sometimes see them hurting each therefor reasons we can’t comprehend, in order to enforce rules that we aren’t allowed to know.
The good news is that we can give the girls in our lives guidance and options, so that they’re less likely to be victims of mean girls — or to be mean girls themselves.
The first step is to recognize that mean girl behaviour comes from a need to feel important and valued.”Status” is a four-letter word, but it’s about more than Instagram influencers and hot-shot CEOs. Status means being accepted and respected in our social groups We all need these groups because for the safety and fulfillment that they provide. We need trusted confidants and people who will stand up for us in tough situations. It may be lonely at the top, but it’s lonelier at the bottom.
This means that, in order to combat mean girl culture, we need to show girls that there are many different ways to gain status and feel important.
Research shows that girls who have positive self-regard and positive relationships are less vulnerable to mean girl tactics. When they face abusive behaviour from their clique, they have the confidence to walk away and find more supportive friends. Further, those who have healthy outlets for their feelings and ambitions — and who have empathy for the people around them — are less likely to become mean girls themselves.
That’s why introducing girls to positive role models and helping them discover their own paths to leadership is so powerful. When a girl realizes that her actions can change the world, she realizes that she has power — and that it feels good to use that power to help others. Getting passionate about an issue or activity will spark her curiosity about new ideas and new people, and show her a world of opportunity outside of her clique. She’ll realize that her value goes far beyond clothes and party invitations and whether so-and-so wants to hang out with her.
Here at Spice! Leadership, we get to watch this process in real-time.
When we bring together groups of girls for our summer camps, a bit of mean girl drama always comes up. However, camp is a unique opportunity for the girls to try something different. In the small group, campers make friends with people who would normally be outside of their social circles. They develop empathy for people who are different from them. Free from the rules and expectations of their cliques, they can talk about new ideas, express themselves differently, and explore what feels authentic. In the process, they start to think differently about the other relationships in their lives.
Throughout the week, we show campers how to use their special leadership qualities to help others. As each camper’s personality becomes apparent on Day 1, we issue them personal leadership challenges, which are usually confidential. We’ll encourage an outgoing girl to make others feel welcome by having a conversation with every other camper or by noticing when someone is left out, and inviting them to join the group. A shy girl will be encouraged to share an opinion during a group discussion or to teach the others a unique skill that she has.
By Day 2 the group’s dynamics have already changed in amazing ways. Shy girls feel more confident about speaking up and goofing around, while their more outgoing peers learn how to make space for every voice in the room. I’ll never forget the moment when one girl — who had many thoughtful and mature opinions but barely spoke above a whisper — put her hand up during a group discussion, and the whole room immediately fell silent so we could all listen to what she had to say.
On the last day of camp, we interview every girl individually. These heartfelt conversations show us that the lessons really hit home. One camper talks about reaching out to a neighbour who is usually excluded by the other kids on their street. Another realizes that she wants to treat her sister with more empathy. One decides that she’s going to stop pretending to be someone else, because she wants people to like her for who she really is. Yet another realizes that even though she’s been picked on in the past, she can be brave and make friends at her new school.
That’s why we do this work. As adults, we can guide and empower girls to see that their worth goes beyond status or popularity or the way that a particular person treats them on a particular day. That’s the foundation of leadership.
Before a girl can start thinking about being Prime Minister or competing at the Olympics, she needs to feel like she can get through her most immediate challenges: surviving the cliques and the gossip at school. Having a best friend or a group of friends she can trust. Having a place to sit at lunchtime. That’s why, when we’re preparing preteens to be leaders in the world, we focus on how to be leaders in their own lives. We’re teaching them about ethics, self-respect, and standing up for what’s right.
In short, helping preteen girls build leadership skills isn’t just about the jobs they’ll have when they grow up. It’s about helping them take control of their lives today, and setting them up to have healthy relationships as they grow. They learn that they have the right to be treated with respect, and the power to action in their own lives. Armed with that knowledge, they can grow up to change the world.