I have a mean girl story. Actually, like you probably do, I have a few of them.
But the one I won’t ever forget is the time that mean girl was me.
When I was 13, I came home from a sleepover at a friend’s house, let’s call her Sleepover Friend. The phone rang when I walked in the door and it was another friend calling, we’ll call her Phone Friend. I quickly found out that Sleepover Friend, who I had just had a great time with, was now “out”. No longer in the group. Had inexplicably become a social leper. Phone Friend was calling to say that Sleepover Friend was suddenly annoying or stuck up or dorky or some other such 13-year-old crime. Just like that. Because sometimes that is how the social cookie crumbles when you are 13. It certainly had for me before.
So, what did I do? Let’s just say my character wouldn’t be the 80s movie hero sticking up for the underdog. I decided to avoid the risk of joining Sleepover Friend in no man’s land and am ashamed to admit that I joined in the criticism of her with gusto. I was sitting under our kitchen table “for privacy” when suddenly, out of nowhere, my mom grabbed my legs, pulled me out from under the table, grabbed the phone and hung up on Phone Friend.
Suddenly, looking into my mother’s eyes, I saw a reflection of myself I did not like. My dear mother then let me know in no uncertain terms this mean girl behavior was not allowed in our home and was a highly punishable crime. I was called out, this was not how it worked in my family.
In that moment, my mom helped me realize the small voice I had been ignoring inside me was the one I should be listening to. She not only made me think about what I had done but about who I wanted to be. She was not afraid to be tough. Being face-to-face with my mom after breaking this rule was absolutely a defining moment.
Until my mom sat me down I was afraid to do anything other than what I needed to do to stay in the group, because we all know that the role of social outcast quite simply sucks. Who hasn’t stood outside of a group of girls who were whispering together but who stopped as soon as you approached? Who hasn’t walked up to a middle school lunch table when suddenly there “wasn’t room” for you? Who hasn’t overheard stories of the sleepover all your friends were at, realizing with a sick feeling in your gut that for some reason you hadn’t been invited? I didn’t want the pain of being out of the group, so while I was a good girl, a nice kid, I was opting for acting like a mean kid in order to protect my own behind.
The moment with my mom was the start of something. It was beginning of the lesson that life isn’t just about fitting in. It laid the groundwork for what I am committed to teaching both as a parent and a teacher—we need to be includers of everyone. Our inness cannot come at the expense of someone else’s outness. We all already fit in just because we are here. Welcome to the human family, population everyone.
As parents, we need to be less concerned with asking if our child is included and ask more questions about who they are including. The message from us, and more importantly the model our kids see from us, needs to be that each and every person has worth and there is always room for one more.
Jesus gave us a great model when he came to our world and hung out with the lepers and the tax collectors and some of the most broken and ostracized people around. He acknowledged they were God’s children just as much as anyone else. And then He said, “Follow Me.” Nowhere did he say, “Do what it takes to make people like you, be cool and secure your place at the lunch table.” He also didn’t say, “This will all be a piece of cake.”
If we want our kids to be the change we want to see in the world, we need to teach them that doing what is right often will be unpopular and acknowledge to them that the truth is it will sometimes be HARD. But teaching them to see and stand up for the value and worth in those around them, even if it comes at the price of their own belonging, is a hard thing worth doing.
We have to look for that moment when we need to grab our kids by the legs and drag them out from under the table. As kids get older they claim to long for privacy and a hands-off approach, just as they did when they wanted to pick out their own clothes when they were 2. But we do not owe it to our kids to check out. Would they seem to love that? Sure. Do they send a “go away” message in our direction? Yup, sometimes.
But just as I don’t give in to the multitude of other wants, I am going to pick my battles here and I’m not giving up on the big stuff. Doritos for breakfast and leave your room the way they want? I can be persuaded. Keep my hands off your Instagram and Facebook account and turn the other cheek when one friend is no longer included in the sleepovers? Not a chance.
I offer you some questions you might ask your kids to help them be includers (If you’re looking to set a great example, ask these of yourself. This list is just as important for us as grown-ups and the odds of someone pulling us out from under the table when we need it is low):
- Who are the “mean kids” and why do you think they act the way they do? (Hint: The answer is not that they are terrible people. As a teacher, I meet a lot of kids and NEVER met one who was just terrible. A hurt, lonely, scared, misunderstood or misdirected one is more likely the problem here.)
- I get that you are saying that person can be tough to be around. What can you find that is good about them?
- I know you’re not friends with that person, but maybe they asked to be your Snapchat follower/to sit with you at lunch because you seem kind. What would happen if you just said yes instead of ignoring the request?
- Who might see that on Instagram and feel left out? Did you need to post it?
- Tell me about how your lunch table works? Can anyone sit with you and your friends? Do you have someone to sit with every day? Do you ever see kids with no one to sit with?
- We’re happy to drive as many kids who need a ride and if there are too many I’ll find another mom to help me. (You guys, kids seriously sometimes get left out because there are no more seats in the car. This is not OK.)
The idea is simply to talk to your kids. If they are left out, do whatever you can to help them connect. If they are the mean kid, do whatever you can to help them change. You might make mistakes, but the good news is you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to pay attention and speak up.
My talk with my mom changed my thinking, it allowed me to see myself and the situation differently. It changed my heart. And with practice, I might have even had a few 80s movie style moments . . . doing the right thing and hearing that slow clap in the background (if only in my mind).
There is nothing that can impact a kid as much as a parent or teacher looking deeply into their eyes, asking them the hard questions, bringing them to the moment of truth. We need to plant the seeds of kindness, tend them and by the grace of God they will grow. I am so thankful my mom was listening. We need to teach our kids there is room for every one of us at the table, yes even at the middle school and high school ones. And that when they bravely give this hard work their best efforts we will be right behind them giving them the slow clap.