I had a conversation with my daughter a couple of days ago. It was one of those rare moments where we were alone in the house and it was particularly quiet and she felt like talking. I don’t even think it started with the usual prodding question, “so how are things going?” ( which, by the way, never works- it is too easy to just say fine in response).
She just started talking about this girl in her class, the one that we, as parents, have already identified and have been monitoring closely. You know the girl. Her allegiances fluctuate daily. She takes offense at the littlest thing, especially if that little thing is you not doing what she wants. She is a foot taller than everybody else and already has breasts. She just talks about boys and has a rotating crush on all of the ones in the class.
She likes to play games like “bitch” where you get to act like a bitch to everyone (just a note here- these are francophone kids and I am giving you the exact name of their game. Yes, they play bitch.) Or “couples” where you pretend that you are boyfriend and girlfriend.
In short, she is manipulative, attention-seeking, and plain old mean. Oh, I am sure she has some good qualities. She just doesn’t let anybody see them.
But back to my daughter. She started talking about this one girl, and how she is always fighting with someone and trying to get the others to be mean to the victim of the day. Now, my girl has yet to piss her off so much that she has been targeted, so it wasn’t that that was bothering her. I think it was the burgeoning disconnect between knowing deep down that something is wrong but at the same time knowing that if you say something you’re liable to draw unwanted attention to yourself. That horrible ethical dilemna of the witness, in short.
Now this dilemna is the defining one of my school days. Because I was a lot like my daughter- never the mean one exactly (I hope- although I am sure I had my little moments) and never the victim. I was stuck in the middle, forced to watch and conflicted about saying anything. And saying something was a big deal, because I was very shy as a child, hyper-conscious of attention and the fact of desperately not wanting it.
Sad to say, I think I failed to overcome my shyness on more than one occasion. I let things pass when I could have stopped them. I felt that pull to say something, but I either couldn’t do it or by the time I got up the nerve it was too late.
So when I was talking to my daughter about this, and she was telling me how this girl behaves and how girls she has known for a good 3 years have suddenly changed their behaviour to match this Alpha girl, crying as she spoke, I did what I could: I fed her the moral platitudes.
How totally unsatisfying is that?
I told her what I think is true- that even if it takes a lot of courage, you have to say something. That if you are a witness to something that is clearly wrong that you have to do something or else you are just part of the problem. Blah, blah blah blah.
She looked at me, her eyes narrowed, her lips pursed and just nodded.
Luckily, it was one of those days where we were alone for a couple of hours. We did something else for a while, but the opportunity to talk came again and I asked her a question: Does it help when you talk to papa and me about this?
There was a brief silence and then a recalcitrant, yes…but.
Me- But what? (oh so nonchalantly)
Daughter- It’s just that you want me to say something to her, and its hard. I don’t know how to do it.
And that is the crux of the matter. It is hard. It never gets any easier. How many times have I been in a situation as an adult where I see bad behaviour either at work, or just people on the streets and have failed to say something? I did get a chance to tell her this though and talk about my experience at school as a child and how sometimes I wasn’t able to either. And how it still kind of haunts me.
In the end, I wasn’t sure if it helped at all. Probably not, as the course of action I was advocating would be that proverbial “road less travelled”, that difficult, gravelly, pothole-riddled road. But one thing is for sure- I know she heard me. And I made her think. Maybe that is all we can ever do as parents.