Girls in third grade have a rough time. Their social life is extremely complicated, and they exhibit behaviors that are difficult to understand and even harder to guide them through. Here are some reports from the front lines of third grade, from a variety of girls and schools. There is a lunch inspection in which one child inspects the others lunches, and if she doesn’t like your lunch you don’t get to sit next to her. Someone talks behind someone else’s back, identifying one girl as mean and one girl as nice. Two girls argue, the tangle ends with one girl spitting in the other’s face (this one, by the way, I experienced myself as a girl, and was both surprised and enlightened when I heard this very report from two other moms I know). There is a game the girls play in which one is the judge, one is the police officer, one is the button pusher, and one is the guilty party. They report that this game is fun.
For the record, I do not condone this behavior on any level. But I think to teach through it, we need to explore more of what we, ourselves, know about it.
There is one book that has been recommended to me in this phase is called “Little Girls Can be Mean,” and while the title is spot on accurate, I cannot bring myself to crack open the cover. I’m sure there is helpful information in there about how to bully-proof my daughter, but to label girls in the middle of a developmental transition, mean, is unfair and unwise. I suppose we say that toddlers go through the “terrible twos” but that story, because of its boundedness in time finishes itself.
When, on the other hand, do we declare that girls are no longer in their mean phase?
To me, it seems that at this age, girls are beginning to explore who they are as individuals and as a group. They are experimenting with what it means to be part of a group, and how power and strength work in relationships. Its a topic that will be interest them for a long time.
Because, meanwhile, in the adult world, Sheryl Sandberg is about to publish Lean In. The book hasn’t arrived on the shelves yet, and already, separate camps of women are setting up. Among my friends and acquaintances some are applauding her advice, recalling what it felt like to not take a promotion or to go part time in order to preserve their personal lives. Some friends are lamenting what they perceive as the inability of Ms Sandberg to acknowledge the impact parents have when they choose to devote most of their personal effort to parenting and creating an inspired homelife.
Did I mention, her book isn’t even out yet?
It seems to me, that before we’ve even read Ms. Sandberg’s book, we are doing that thing that girls sometimes do. We are dividing ourselves into groups to validate our individual identities. We are finding a camp that feels most like us, unrolling our sleeping bags and hunkering into the big old sleepover party that has become our lives. Indeed, I decided to write this blog post upon realizing that, I, myself, had found a nice cozy spot next to a girlfriend, rolled out my sleeping bag, and primped my hair for the party. I found it quite comfortable to pick my safe spot, hang out there, and judge others outside our group.
Sounds a little mean doesn't it?
It is. But in both cases I think the opportunity is to grow past the behavior and its label.
What I’m seeing a glimmer of in my own girl, just on the other side of this murk and mud is her aspiration to be part of the bigger group, to define herself beyond herself. With each t-shirt she dons (and lately, its all about the t-shirts, Star Wars today, neon peace and love tomorrow, who knows what the next day brings) she is sending out a beacon to the world at large, asking to make a connection. By revealing her raves and rants to others, she is exposing herself, searching for that fit in which her individual self finds a tribe. This results in some treacherous, heartbreaking and messy experimentation with identity that will be the primary focus of the next phase of her life and on to adulthood.
But I think the drive behind this process is profound and can be good. Both for third graders and for adult women, we are trying to integrate our fundamental human need to belong and our core desire to connect our lives to something bigger than ourselves. I'm hopeful, that as adult women, our years of relational experience have set us up to make a new developmental leap in this realm, one that, maybe, if we make it ourselves, will help our daughters to get through the tricky, painful phase that third grade seems to present.
Upon the publication of Sandberg’s Lean In, we have an opportunity, as women to show these third graders how its done, how we can appreciate difference, learn from it and transcend it. We can we pause before setting up camps in which women are either validated or shamed by where they pass the hours of the day and instead, push our ability to experience the individual-group identity spectrum as far as we can.
Because, girlfriends, we know the real leaning-in starts with ourselves and moves outward. We must, both, go deeper into our individuality in order to bring to light what is most unique and brilliant about ourselves, and we must force ourselves to experience our connection to ever widening circles of women.
Leadership and service can unfold in infinite contexts. It appears in the boardroom and the playroom, and in a thousand places well beyond those walls. We owe it to our third grade girls to make our own developmental leap this time. It might not be easy, but we can get through to the other side of this divide. And I don’t know about you, but I am up for that adventure. For the one in which we can be different from one another, and disagree, and lead in our own style. For the one and in which we can teach our daughters, not how to label other behavior as mean or otherwise, but how to transcend by stepping fully stepping into our strength as individuals, connected to others who are able to do the same; united not by sameness, but by our devotion to being our best for the greater good.