It all comes back to how you feel about yourself. Somewhere I have heard it said that you treat people the way you feel about yourself. Obviously it is more complicated than that, but I think that the roots of it may just be that basic. In looking back to my time as a "mean girl", I know that I didn't like myself. I felt comfortable, and happy, around kids who made me feel good about myself. It's not that those kids would say or do things differently, it's that they were "in my league" so to speak. Kids whom I felt inferior, or self-conscious around, I treated differently.
I was a cute kid. I can say that now, looking back at my pictures from my childhood. But as a child I didn't feel "cute". I felt awkward, and "too tall". My hair wasn't long, or blond. My eyes weren't blue or big. My teeth weren't straight. I didn't live in the "rich neighborhood". My family didn't contain a dad. There were a lot of areas that made me self-conscious. Add to that a mother who made Christy Brinkley look homely, and a little sister who was her spitting image, and it made for a mental battle every day within my tender, inquisitive self.
In elementary school I sought out friends who let me shine, and with whom I felt beautiful around. I had a cousin, about my age, whom I felt especially low around. She was petite, where I was gangly. She had long blond hair, and beautiful blue eyes. She was an amazing gymnast who competed and won. She had a big family with married parents. She was everything, truly, that I wished I were. They lived in another state, and I remember dreading her trips to visit. Not because she was mean...in fact that would have made her bearable, because at least she would have had a vice that would have soothed my inferiority complex. But instead she was pleasant and kind...oh the nerve of her! There is a picture that I have of the two of us, seated next to each other, at a Thanksgiving dinner. We are both smiling, but I am filled to the brim with pea-green envy. Every time I would see that picture for the next ten years, I felt sharp pangs of jealousy towards my cousin, and guilt for feeling jealous and hating her...as well as contempt for the genetic lottery that I felt I'd lost out with. I felt like the ugly duckling, next to the Swan Princess. And so that is exactly how I acted- like an ugly person. And then the picture disappeared, and my cousin and I grew up, and our worlds rarely intertwined. And then I came across the picture again, two or three years ago. And my thirty year old self just wanted to reach out and hug that little ten year old me. I saw this darling girl. Really I was darling. And I could finally see it.
The tragedy is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The worse you treat people, the worse you feel about yourself, until eventually the lies that you have been telling yourself, about you being mean and awful- actually come true. So, I avoided the cute, beautiful, self-assured people and gravitated towards people I felt secure around. It's not to say that all my friends were trolls and hobbits. Some were quite beautiful...but it is the way that THEY MADE ME FEEL ABOUT MYSELF. One of my greatest friends, was a true beauty. I loved her as a sister. I loved her because she made me feel so smart, and funny, and talented. I was like Bette Middler's character in Beaches. I wanted her all to myself, and when she "graduated" to "the popular group" I was devastated. I didn't know how to share her. And so I lost her. It wasn't the first or the last time that would happen.
As for my siblings, I look back with great sorrow on the pain that I inflicted on them. As an "oldest child" I had the power to treat them however I wanted. They looked up to me. But because I hated myself, I treated them with equal unkindness. It is not an exaggeration to say that I was a bully in my own home. I was emotionally abusive to both my younger sister and brother. Often there was no adult in the home to protect them, and so they avoided me as much as possible to be safe. I was physically aggressive to my sister...seeing her as a walking, breathing manifestation of everything I was not, but wished that I were: a good friend, beautiful, kind, talented with approval from my parents. The worst thing about "getting away" with awful behavior is the identity that you create for yourself. How I wished someone would have stopped me. It was behavior that I knew was wrong, but like an addict drawn to his cigarette, I had developed a pattern that defined me, and I had no idea how to stop. I hated myself deeply. I hated my brother and sister even more for loving me. I was unworthy of love.
This is painful for me to type...for me to acknowledge. It is painful to remember causing such hurt. It is painful to recall being such a wounded child. I know that this sounds trite, but it did escalate with the divorce of my parents. I was shattered when my dad left our home. Broken in to a million tiny pieces, would be a better way to describe it. I was viciously envious of every friend who had a father in the home. I looked at them like a trophy that their mother had been lucky enough to snag. I don't know where to go with this, other than to draw some belated conclusions.
The first is; I don't deserve the love that my siblings give me, but I am beyond grateful for it. They are two of the people that I love most in this world, and I wish with all my heart that I had known how to be a sister who loved them and treated them with the respect and kindness they deserved.
The second is that I have learned a few lessons from being a "mean girl". The first is: you do no one any favors by allowing mean behavior from your kids. It feels "mean" to call them on it, and to not allow it...but it is far "meaner" to allow them to continue it. The kindest thing is acknowledge the behavior, figure out the cause, try to change the environmental factors that contribute to the behavior, and then redirect the behavior. I went too far in the opposite direction with raising my first child. I was so fearful of permitting "mean behavior" that I didn't allow him to express his feelings. That was damaging. As we all know, "putting on the happy face" only creates much bigger problems down the road. He would be perfectly behaved 99% of the time, but then he would crack and have an outburst that caused me to realize that this "peaceful stream" that I like to project him as, had turbulent waters below the surface that definitely needed to be exposed. Where I was allowed to unleash torrents of hatred at my siblings, I hadn't allowed him to express any of his anger or frustration, thinking that this was the way to teach him to control those emotions. I finally (hopefully not too late) figured out that there is a balance. He needed to be able to voice his feelings, good or bad, without fear- to feel sane, and he needed boundaries for how to do it, in order to feel safe.
So my kids know: Everyone's bodies are their own. We are not allowed to touch anyone else's bodies unless they want us to, and there are areas that other people are not allowed to touch WITHOUT EXCEPTION.
We treat people with kindness and respect. You can say how someone is making you feel, (like "I HATE it WHEN you do this") but we do not say mean things about the person (IE: "I hate YOU"). If someone hurts you, you immediately tell them to stop. If they do not, you tell an adult, no questions. If, after you tell them to stop, they continue to hurt you, you can defend yourself. I HATE it when mothers have the mentality that their kid, who is picking on other kids, is entitled to do it (that that's just the way boys are) and that it is on the OTHER mother's shoulders to teach THEIR kids how to fight back. Talk about teaching your kid how to be a bully. If they are getting the green light from their parents, that being aggressive is OK, then of course they are going to continue and then wonder why they get in trouble down the road, or loose friends because of it.
Unkindness, in our home, is treated the same way physical bullying is. If a child is being unkind (purposefully) then they get a warning. If they repeat it, they are punished. There are certain things that are just No-No's and they know it. One of those sends them directly to jail, do not pass go. That would be "I hate you" "You are stupid" "I wish you were never born". They would have been better off throwing a left hook, with the punishments those daggers earn them.
I have learned, by watching my kids (especially Shelby) that they do better with certain friends, over others. With some, for no apparent reason, there is just bad mojo. Maybe they feel dumb, ugly, or intimidated around them. What ever the reason- I avoid having them play with those friends. I used to MAKE them play with those friends. By gosh, we are going to be friends with EVERYONE come Hell, or high water! But eventually I have come to realize that it's just not worth it. And over time, maybe things will change- just like me with my cute cousin, but for the time being, it's just easier to have them with people whom they feel and ACT good around. What do they say? "What goes around, comes around". And now, here we are, twenty years later and Shelby is in my same boat. Her cousin, only three weeks her junior, is the one that Shelby feels and acts worst around. This cousin of hers is tiny, where Shelby is tall like her parents. This cousin has big blue eyes, where Shelby's are lovely half-moons like Mom has. This cousin has older sisters, from whom she learns cool things that Shelby is clueless about (like who Hannah Montana is, and what Brats Dolls are). It's like stepping back in time. And so I watch my darling little girl behave badly around this cousin...say mean things to her...refuse to share...ignore her, and so on. I watch, pained, as I see this little adoring cousin of hers try everything to gain Shelby's approval. And the angst that exists within Shelby at her shame and confusion as to why she is feeling and acting this way. After several punishments, scoldings, etc... I have come to the difficult conclusion that they won't be playing together. Shelby's self-worth can not handle this sweet little cousin, and I don't think that the sweet little cousin can handle Shelby's lack of self-esteem. Hopefully one day they will reconnect when Shelby can see the value of her long legs, and half-moon eyes, and they can be friends as equals- loving and respecting their differences, instead of being threatened by them. In a perfect world, my four and a half year old would get this now, but this is reality, and my job is to allow her to get her roots of self-worth under her, before she is expected to brave the elements and bloom amidst the rain and the storms.
Can't I be her shelter now, just for the moment? Introducing her to the elements slowly, when she can handle them. She knows that it's not OK to be mean to her cousin. She just can not understand why she would want to. That lesson is for another day. And this retired "mean girl" continues to try to raise kids with self-worth, who know how to voice their opinions with kindness and respect, hopefully while building meaningful friendships both in and out of the home...(breath held, fingers crossed).