Because I'm the Mom

How mothering pervades all relationships in life.

The Frenemy Files: What the Mean Girls Know

Untaught teachable moments in Girl World

     Third grade has opened up a fresh field of frenemy hell for my daughter, as well as a world of heartbreakingly wonderful possibilities. The emotional infrastructure, the mazes and hierarchies in Girl World group dynamics are simply breathtaking. It's all happening in the hallways, in the bathroom, at the coat rack, the lunch tables, between goals in gym, on the playground, in the line for the water fountain. No unteached teachable moment is wasted. The level of micro-managed hypervigilant attention these 8-year-old girls pay to the ebbs and flows of their relationships - both individual and group-is astonishing. It's amazing they ever get to multiplication and upper-case cursive letters.
      The only group of women spending as much time focusing on intrafemale friendship is the group of 40-50-something mothers/scholars writing tens of thousands of pages analyzing the relationships of both 3rd grade girls and themselves.
     One of the most powerful and painful lessons my daughter is living in this friendship fishbowl is figuring out the very grown-up and very delicate balance between a friendship that's worth the hassle and one that isn't. How much bickering, bossing, back-biting is too much? Is any of that simply unacceptable? Is it inevitable?

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     She has a few friends with whom none of that occurs, and I'm constantly and desperately arranging playdates with those girls because Leah comes home happy and psychologically unmangled and says things like: "Shelley likes me for my whole self. I can relax around her." And I say, "Well that's what a real friend and a healthy relationship do for you. That's true friendship and you should only hang out with people you feel good and safe around."
      And yet.

      And yet the other kind of girl, with the mean streak, the edge, the lip gloss, are so much more exciting, so much more tempting. I cannot consider any implications this may have in the future with romantic relationships; this lure to the bad ass, the always semi-unavailable. Cannot think about that now.
      And then, just like in big-girl life, a gal can surprise you. A once-frenemy can throw what looks like a left hook but is really an embrace.
      I found a letter in my daughter's backpack from a longtime frenemy, a kind of mean-girl wannabe minion. If she had a nickname it'd be: "What-she-said." In Girl World of Queen Bees and Minions, this child - and it's hard to remember sometimes, but they are children - is a lower-level information spreader. She listens quietly, is always one foot away from the action, hears and knows all, and then increases her status by turning her scoop into a stinging commodity. She affirms the Queen's positions and bites all backs. And yet.
     And yet, out of earshot of the Queen bee, this child was secretly sweet, full of empathy and seemed to genuinely care for my daughter. Out of the line of fire from the Queen and Court.
      Out of nowhere comes this letter; in an envelope in my daughter's backpack on a random day. Written in a long, elegant print, could easily have been stuffed in a high school backpack, said this:

"Hi Leah,
The other day I was reading a book and there was a saying and this is what it said "Turn enimies into friends by doing something nice." Not exactly were enimies but I think we can hava better friend-ship. And that I know sometimes I don't like you because of what of somebody else says and I believe but from this point on I want to know if you want to be true friends. You ar a marvilus friend. So do you want to be friends?
Love, XXXXX
You can send me a letter in the mail. This is my adres: XXXX XXXX Write back.
PS You are a great imaginer with cloths. You have the most stylisht cloths and styles. You should be a designer."

My daughter hasn't mentioned it yet. It's wrong of me on so many levels to have read it without her permission, to be writing about it, to lie in wait for her to bring it up. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I know this.

And yet.

I'll wait for her to bring it up because it's her life, her business and should be within her control. And if she doesn't tell me about it today after school, I'm going to grill her about it.I mean, do you love this or what?

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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