Mean girls: Inside the world of childhood friendships

Little-girl friendships seem flippant, but researchers say there's more at play.
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Little-girl friendships seem flippant, but researchers say there's more at play.

The world of little-girl friendships seems fraught with conflict and cattiness. Is it different for boys, asks Aimie Cronin, or are we stereotyping girls?

Hannah is seven. She sits outside dance class in her purple leotard, her hair like sun. When she smiles, she declares a delightful gap where front teeth are about to sprout.

She turns her head to the side and stretches her arms out when she says, proudly, she has three friends. She names them. It all came about, she says, because she made up a pretend game where ladybirds die and are fixed by little girls. She was playing this game one day and three assistant-ladybird-fixers made themselves known, asking Hannah if they could play. The next day, the three girls decided to do something else, minus Hannah, the next day they played together, the next day they didn't.

Hamilton mum Deanna Macdonald with her daughter Charlotte Bayley: "At that age you don't really have really strong ...
MARK TAYLOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Hamilton mum Deanna Macdonald with her daughter Charlotte Bayley: "At that age you don't really have really strong friendships, because that comes with maturity," says Macdonald.

Hannah says that in a perfect world she would only need one friend every day, someone who will come to her house for a swim. But there are no guarantees when it comes to little girls and their friendships. That's life in the playground.

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Across the room Kiera, seven, swings a little from side to side in her purple leotard and her matching purple-framed glasses. She has brown hair and a grown-up kind of bob. She seems like a serious, thoughtful kid.

She says that sometimes she has some friends and sometimes she has a lot. She says that sometimes they argue which game they're gonna play, or who is gonna be this, or whose gonna be that. And, she says, sometimes girls will say I'm not playing, or they just walk away because they get hit by the skipping rope.

Girls Kiera's age mostly play with other girls, she says. Though she knows someone who knows someone who plays with a boy. Boys play different, she says. They make huts or try and act out characters – like, they pretend to be their dogs. Girls play characters, too, but not like that.

I kept a list. I was five or six. It was in the back of my Strawberry Shortcake Diary which smelt of fake sweetness and it had a little padlock. At lunchtime I would make reading from it a dramatic kind of ceremony, opening the padlock at reduced speed for added impact.

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Those girls who made the cut would link arms with me and we played with a closeness that would suggest a lifetime of friendship, even though the list was updated daily and for no reason girls fell off it or made it on. There were days I didn't make someone else's list and I wandered around traumatised. Somehow, by running hot and cold, we girls felt closer together. It was like saying we had handpicked this person to be our friend for the hour and that meant something in our five-year-old minds.

Our declarations of friendship were extreme. In my memory box there are birthday cards from girls I don't remember being friends with, with the hand scribbled message inside: I love you. We passed notes declaring both love and hate. We treated boys as the common enemy when we weren't playing catch and kiss with them. When they broke rules we became mini bounty hunters, dragging them to the teacher because we wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing.

All of the girls I can think of turned out to be reasonable people, but looking back, it's a wonder we came out of girlhood with any friends at all. I know very few who don't speak of being traumatised by mean girls and most of us admit to being one of them at some point growing up.

The apparent flippancy of little-girl-friendship shows the importance of relationships for girls, says University of Waikato associate professor in education Lise Claiborne. "They're not being casual, it's about closeness and the importance of having someone who understands them."

Clairborne spent a term at a primary school hanging out with young girls for a book she co-wrote in 2014, Human Development – Family, Place, Culture. She says young girls are in the early stages of developing an understanding about desirable qualities in friendship and "often they don't have the long-term understanding of behaviour, which would help".

Boys can be little s**** too, right? As an ex teacher I can testify to seeing all kinds of mean. A boy thrown in the rubbish bin after being hassled for his buck teeth; boys excluding boys who weren't the fastest runners; boys labelled geeks because they wore glasses. For some reason, though, it was girls who got called catty or little Bs by observing adults. Often people say it's because boys deal with their messes and they move on. Girls fester.

"There's more flexibility about what is acceptable for boys," says Clairborne. In a society that is so divided by gender, she says the expectations of women and their role can be interpreted from a young age. "Sometimes girls can be mirroring what society projects a woman should be. Little girls are often trying to be good, but they don't have the tools to do it well."

University of Auckland researcher Maree Martinussen is writing a PhD thesis on female friendship. She says, "When we think about the kind of messages women are getting about femininity and the things they should be judged on, if there is a sense that women are judged on how they look, then girls will pick up on that and it will play out in their minds and their identities."

Ayn Harris, a primary school teacher and mother of four (three of them girls), says the most common reasons her daughters were excluded from play were often appearance-related, and arbitrary. The wrong coloured hair-tie, or not having a pink hairclip when another little girl has declared it a pink hairclip day. She believes girls' attacks are on a more personal level. "Boys say mean things but they are not as cutting."

Harris, 38, has observed that as cruelty between girls continues into tween and teenhood, it acquires the added pressure of celebrity culture and social media. "If you don't have perfect hair and you don't have perfect skin, then there is the message you're not perfect and that something is wrong with you. My youngest, who is nine, luckily hasn't come across someone saying something about her freckles, but I know it might come because I've had the two older girls and I know that there will be someone who will say something. It's a horrible feeling, not being able to control what happens to your girls."

I know the exact spot where I stood when one of my friends at primary school went around the group, pointing to each one of us and deciding how pretty we each were. I got told I was interesting. She might as well have hurled a flaming object at my face. It's been almost 30 years since that comment and I still think of it from time to time. Would a boy have just let it go?

A friend remembers her girlhood friendships: "Something about my prepubescent personality must have really pissed people off, because I was regularly shunned at primary school. One day I'd have friends; the next, not, and instead my former friends were all giggling, whispering, looking at me and occasionally shouting across the playground "REJECT!" It happened all the time, led by one ringleader, Anna. I don't know how kids figure out the elaborate rhythms of cool, but it seems baked in from playcentre onward. To whine plaintively, 'What did I do?' made me more of a loser. I still remember how painful it was. Not much in adult life compares to the pain experienced every day in childhood and I think more adults should remember that."

I call my old kindy teacher Mrs Erkilla who taught four-year-olds for more than 50 years. I ask for her take on little girls.

"Little girls do everything to be obliging," she says. "They participate. They don't let you down. Boys [participate] sometimes, if they can be bothered."

Are we raising little girls with the expectation they act perfect, look perfect, while boys just get to be muddy, hopeless and carefree? Says Martinussen: "If someone at a young age starts to understand themselves as the quiet one, or the organiser, or the pretty one… maybe there's a case for saying they might keep that subject position for the rest of their lives.

"It's understood that to be a good girl you conform." Martinussen thinks that a girl's behaviour will be sometimes perceived as bitchy when the same behaviour coming from a boy will be seen as assertive.

***

Charley Bayley, eight, goes to a co-ed private school in Hamilton, where she says the girls like calling each other pretty and looking at each other's things and the boys like looking at Lego and playing Star Wars. She doesn't hesitate when asked how many friends she has. One hundred. When she talks about the things that matter to her when choosing her friends, she lists qualities it would be hard to imagine hearing from a boy of the same age: "If they care for me when I get hurt, they help me go to the nurse, or if someone hurts my feelings, they would try to cheer me up." She says she makes friends by "being a good person and sharing". When her friends are mean to her, as they sometimes are, they say things like, "You're bad at singing. I hate you. You're a bad person. You're ugly." Sometimes they run away from her and she can't catch them; sometimes they say mean things about the plate she wears to straighten her teeth.

Charley's mum, Deanna Macdonald, says her daughter will change friends regularly, whereas her son has stuck with the same group of friends. This is a common observation. She saw the same pattern with her older daughter. Macdonald says she would worry about her daughter's friendships if she noticed a change in her school work or self-esteem, but for now, Macdonald believes she's just acting like a little girl. "Girls are always catty; it doesn't matter what era, girls will always be catty. They will pick up on weaknesses, whether they are your best mate or not. At that age you don't really have really strong friendships, because that comes with maturity."

Harris says the only answer she has come up with after raising four kids is to make sure home is solid, so there is always a sense of calm in the middle of frenzied little-girl friendships. She and her husband work on building resilience at home, so that the little people's knocks don't hurt as hard. "We've always tried to make home solid," she says. "We've always tried to make it a soft place to land."

Hannah with the sun-coloured hair doesn't know why she has friends one day and none the next.

"I don't know how it happened, it just happened."

Thank god we get a little better at figuring these things out. I no longer keep a list and change my friends on a daily basis, but my friends lack the simplicity of childhood playmates. I couldn't just bowl up to the playground and find a new one the next day. Little Hannah with sometimes three friends and sometimes none, skips all the way to dance class in her purple leotard, ready to make some more.

If you are aged between late 20s to 40s and are willing to answer questions about your friendships for research, please contact Maree Martinussen at friendshipresearch.com.

 - Sunday Magazine

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