Joining The Club

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Tween parents talk about “joining the club,” raising issues of bullying & cliques.
One parent writes:

“My usually very sweet, almost 8 year-old daughter seems to have joined a gang this summer. I'm exaggerating only a little bit. She has a group of friends at summer camp which includes someone she's known since babyhood. The girls have formed "a club" which has common "enemies." This includes a group of boys whom they have dubbed "Team Annoying" and several counselors.

The situation with the boys seems to be understandable - the boys apparently attack them in the swimming pool, and they fight back. They've solicited a counselor's help to be their "bodyguard." It sounds like chaos, but somewhat controlled chaos. I don't like it, but I can live with it.

The thing with the counselors is bothering me a bit more. From what my daughter tells me, the girls are angry about several times that they have felt either insulted or disciplined by the counselors. They respond by "torturing" the counselors. I haven't figured out what this means yet. My daughter has written a song for the club which includes statements like "our enemies will bleed when we are victorious!" We talked to her fairly strongly when we found it.

Last night, my daughter was in tears because she felt like she had to choose between participating and remaining friends with these girls, including her best friend since infancy.

This is the first time I've had to deal with anything like this, and I would welcome any words of wisdom!”

Responses:

“As my daughter and her friends approach tween-jr high age, I am remembering so much cruelty around this age -- no idea of what was normal or mean but I'd guess that all of us remember some pretty awful social stuff of this sort. I'm so curious about whether and how much we can damp it down for our kids, or even figure out what is normal and what crosses the line. (Although I think a lot of the sexist, racist and homophobic elements are now clearly marked at unacceptable, phew.) I'd second the suggestion to talk to the upper counselors and others to get their take. And it sounds like you're already talking to and listening to your kid. Since the option of hiding in a cave till this stage is over, nice to have the tweens list to mull it over.”
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“To add to the range of replies (with apologies that I couldn't do so last week): I had a more light-hearted take on the "club," although of course it's impossible to know whether more malicious intent may be lurking. Sometimes girls at this young age find their way into groups that involve big plans and lots of talk. It can be a way of thinking big, having fun and building solidarity--but doesn't have to be mean or exclusive (although it can). So I guess I'd want to know more about what the girls were actually saying or doing, but I'd tread lightly, at least at first. And even if they're playing with being mean and exclusive, there's room for conversation about friendship, empathy and choices, without having to come down hard. (disclosure: I don't have a daughter. But I've worked with girls this age in classrooms, as both a teacher and psychologist, as well as in groups and other kinds of settings. So feel free to take this with a grain of salt!)”
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“I had a number of conversations with my daughter about this, and it seems like she's just having a good time with it at this point. One of the ringleaders is no longer in camp, and two of the boys have crushes on two of the girls. There still seems to be some tension with the counselors, but from what she says the counselors think it's all in fun (which drives her crazy...)
Bottom line, it's all ok, and I'll keep talking with her about it. Thank you all - this is a terrific forum, and I am so grateful for your feedback!”
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“I don't know if I would call this bullying or even disturbing behavior. It actually sounds pretty normal to me, but I understand your concern. In terms of the boys vs. girls thing, it’s pretty common and to some extent (I think) part of development in many cases. It’s a way of cementing gender identity with the other girls as well as possibly (the beginning of) flirting with boys. If we can remember back to elementary school (and I can barely remember 5 minutes ago), there was a lot of teasing and playing that was really an expression of interest.
In terms of the counselors, my guess is that they are teens or young adults, ie they are probably not the seasoned educators, and they will relate to your child differently than a teacher. I could be wrong, butthis is typically the case at camp. Much of this behavior might be playful, not harmful, counselors often interact more along the lines of a big brother-big sister. Many younger kids love this. Your daughter may be exaggerating what the counselors are doing and it may be part of a game (ie, the torturing of counselors)...
With that said, the place I would start with is the camp. Talk to the counselors,, the head couselors, and the directors to see what is going on.
In terms of crossing the line between bullying, or maybe in this case teasing, and play, I would talk to your daughter and ask if any one's feelings are getting hurt. Are the boys' feelings getting hurt? The counselors'? Her's? Her girlfriend's etc. With my kids (and I have 2 comedians so it is hard), I'm trying to teach them that it’s when play crosses a line and someone's feelings get hurt, it’s too much. That also means they have to learn to recognize when someone's feelings are hurt, which is a pretty sophisticated skill.
While I think that it’s great that we have such a strong focus on bullying now, I also think that we may sometimes be too quick to jump the gun and label some behaviors as problematic when they are not (or when they are an expression of normal development).
Anyway, my advice is to speak with the camp and get a better sense of the situation and then take it from there.”
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“I don't have an answer for you except that I 'think' that the Queen Bees and Wanna Bees book focuses on just this topic. It seems like the lines between normal play, bullying (torturing) and us/them behavior (which is such human nature) are fuzzy.
I wonder if there is also gender element to this- if a boy was singing about blood and being victorious would it be less shocking?
Eight years old and having to choose friends-- that sucks.”
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“As my daughter and her friends approach tween-jr high age, I am remembering so much cruelty around this age -- no idea of what was normal or mean but I'd guess that all of us remember some pretty awful social stuff of this sort. I'm so curious about whether and how much we can damp it down for our kids, or even figure out what is normal and what crosses the line. (Although I think a lot of the sexist, racist and homophobic elements are now clearly marked at unacceptable, phew.) I'd second the suggestion to talk to the upper counselors and others to get their take. And it sounds like you're already talking to and listening to your kid. Since the option of hiding in a cave till this stage is over, nice to have the tweens list to mull it over.”