A recent New York Times piece, Cultural Studies: The Playground Gets Even Tougher, examines an increasing trend toward bullying among very young girls: kindergarteners and first-graders. The article looks at, among other examples, “Erin Munroe, a school guidance counselor in Boston… [who] sees first-graders pulling their hair out, throwing up before school and complaining of constant stomachaches” all because “It’s not cool to not have a cell phone anymore or to not wear exactly the right thing….The poor girls who have Strawberry Shortcake shirts on, forget it.”
Of course, the experts interviewed pointed the effect of media culture in shaping the attitudes of children, and linked the act of bullying to the pervasive materialism that characterizes Western consumer culture. And, no doubt, these are important factors in forming “mean girls.” But it is the closing remark by Debbie Rosenman, who has been teaching in a Midwestern suburban school for 31 years, that I found particularly disturbing. She observes, “The girls who are the victims tend to be raised by parents who encourage them to be more age appropriate….The mean girls are 8 but want to be 14, and their parents play along.”
Ironically, this New York Times article came at the same time the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article entitled “Cloistered Kids Make Terrible Adults,” which exults in the former freedoms of childhood to walk the dog and go to the shops without fear. It seems that as we lock our children away from the potential bogey men lurking in the neighborhood park or at the shops, we encourage our daughters to devour each other within their schools. As this juxtaposition implies, the bullying in the NYT article has a particularly sinister side. In it, Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton are both referenced as some of the aggressive women that young girls are viewing and emulating in the early years of primary school. Such “role models” imply that the age-inappropriate behavior that parents play along with is characterized by materialism and an assertion of one’s sexuality, rather than the freedom to take the dog to the park without an adult chaperon. While the innocent adventures of childhood and the responsibilities and privileges of growing-up are deemed too dangerous, the self-centered materialism and early sexuality of teenage and young adult pop-divas and television stars is encouraged. The sexualized gaze that is dangerous in the stranger becomes a thing to flaunt, as it is unwittingly appropriated and internalized by the child.
To look on―or worse, to encourage―our daughters to demean themselves and others with them, we truly must be a society determined to destroy its women while they are still very little girls. Such a society needs a different vision of what it means to be human, one that encourages girls to see themselves as more than the things they possess or their sexual potential. The biblical narrative offers just such an alternative view, affirming that each person is created in the image of God with a particular and redemptive role to play in the world.
Sadly, though, it is not enough for individuals―and individual parents―to recognize the divine image in and purpose for their daughters, to and encourage them to live differently than their friends, since this will apparently make them likeable targets for bullying. Recognizing this, many parents commenting the NYT article express their plans to home school their children or send them to small private institutions. Yet such a step away does not solve the problem; it only encapsulates girls to face it a few years ahead. And the schools we could affect for the better are left uninfluenced.
So instead of isolating ourselves to complain about the evils of society, even of little kindergarten girls, those of us who embrace a biblical understanding of human identity must instead live that out in community, so that we and our daughters can, as a group, offer an alternative vision, one that sees innocent little girls growing into confident and graceful women.