My daughter is now old enough -- 12, in seventh grade -- that we can sometimes be almost girlfriends. She sits in the front seat of the car and fiddles with the radio, choosing music she likes. A few weeks ago, before school started, we went and got mani-pedis together, and watched the movie Date Night on the salon TV. I took her to my hairdresser and we both got haircuts. She has started wanting to try caffeinated drinks -- she likes Refreshers at Starbucks, tried a decaf pumpkin latte but barely drank it, has started bringing tea to school (fancy flavors from David's Tea, more chocolate flavored than tea, with lots of milk). She has some interest in clothes and we go shopping in the Juniors and Ladies sections at places like Target, Express, or Urban Outfitters -- no more kid stores for her. We talk about our crushes on actors -- Benedict Cumberpatch is a shared favorite. She tells me about her fan-girl activities and favorite shows.
It is tempting, then, to talk to her like a grown up. We have never baby-talked her or hidden much of the reality of the world from her. She knows that there are freaks with guns, and wars, and poverty, and that mom does not like the TeaParty, and she knows that mom and dad have had friends die, and she knows about sex and drugs. I don't mean that. I mean it is tempting to bitch and gossip. It is tempting to talk to her in the worst ways that girlfriends do. When she talks about middle school, it is tempting to say what I think -- who among her friends is a b**ch, who is anorectic, who will sell her out when boys come to call, who will be pregnant by high school, who is not very smart.
Instead, I have to remind myself that I have to talk to her AS a grown up and remember that she is not one, that I am not her peer but her mother. I have to walk carefully through the minefield of middle school and let her find her way. Rather than name a girl as a mean girl, I have to ask if anybody is making her feel bad, or how she felt when so-and-so said something rude. I have to remind her that she has two years more in this school with these kids and that she has to maintain cordial relations. I have to ask her what her role is in various encounters, if she is to blame for any awkward interactions, or animosities among friends. I have to help her be mindful of her own behaviors and comments and make sure, as best I can, that SHE is not a mean girl.
My best strategy is to treat her as I treat friends after a break up. After a few gaffes, I have learned to be sympathetic, but noncommittal. Never say "Good, I hated that guy/gal," or "Good, that guy/gal was cheating on you," or "that guy/gal hit one me," or "I thought that guy/gal was mean to you" or "that guy/gal was weird" or anything else that will come back to bite me on the hiney when my friend reunites with that guy/gal. Now, I try to stay within "how do you feel about the break up? Are you happy or sad? Relieved? What can I do to help you get through this?"
Middle school is a series of wounds and break ups, large and small -- friends abandoned then rediscovered, friends drifting apart, friends being mean one day and wonderful the next, friends trying on new roles as boyfriends and girlfriends, and friends jostling for placement next to certain boys and girls at the expense of others. All we can do is be available and open, to listen to their complaints, to guide them to avoid as many pitfalls as they can, to protect them from their own worst impulses, and to let them know that these wounds are not as big or deep as they seem in the moment. We have to talk the best ways that girl friends do, as girls who have your back and lend you support, and model ways of being girls without there being mean girls or victims.