As a fully grown tomboy, I have long considered myself lucky to have sons instead of daughters, knowing I possess neither the patience nor the understanding to help navigate the minefield that is the life of today’s girl. I outright admire and privately pity my sisters-in-law and friends as they move through the drama-filled days, tear-filled bus rides and pain-tinged relationships that change daily with their daughters and their friends. Instead, I have blissfully handled the straightforward struggles of my sons’ friendships with relative ease: a borrowed-then-lost game; some boyish grandstanding at another’s expense; envy at someone else’s cooler toy. So when my third-grade son grew withdrawn for two weeks, except for frequent, angry outbursts, it took a bit more digging than usual to get to the heart of the matter. But I was surprised to find it was a comment from a girl that had thrown him into a spin.
Kids can be thoughtless and often speak from their own insecurities, something I understood but Jacob did not, so he took the girl’s comment to heart. He is usually a pretty happy and confident kid. But because the comment was negative and aimed at his personality, it made him think there was something wrong with him; a new experience, and one he didn’t know how to deal with. Fortunately for him, I was able to dredge up a couple of my own uncomfortable memories from grammar school and share them, and he felt much better once we talked about it. I thought it was an isolated incident, but not long after, Jacob took a class in another town, and when I came to pick him up, the group was involved in a game. Jacob was leading the game, and as I stood at the back, two girls—neither one older than nine—both made unprovoked comments to him in front of the group. One comment was obnoxious and tinged with attitude; the other was vulgar and downright mean. Fortunately, Jacob seemed unfazed by both comments; the game continued and he never said anything about them. This time, I was the one who was impacted. Standing frozen and stunned, I wondered, “What is going on with girls today?”
According to Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, the Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,
while boys may make up the majority of physical aggressors, most relational aggression (also known as emotional violence or “female bullying”) occurs among girls. “Girls are socialized to be nice,” says Simmons. “We want them assertive, but we also want them to be liked and friends with everyone.” According to Simmons, this sugar-and-spice image of girls forces them to repress anger, which is a biological impulse just like thirst or hunger. The result is that the anger instead comes out in the form of relational aggression.
Although I know that girls’ relationships are more complex than those of boys, I had always considered myself immune from needing to understand them. But as my sons begin to interact more with their female peers, I see that I’ll need to have some comprehension of how all kids today relate to each other. I only hope that, if Jacob is a target of this type of unkindness in the future, he will talk about it before it again manifests into hostility toward his family. Because I see now that, whether inflicted in a girl or a boy, if anger is left unchecked it will turn into aggression. And no parent wants their child caught in that cycle of negativity.