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Girl Violence in the News (And How to Talk to Your Child about It)

By Peggy Moss, J.D., Bullying Prevention Expert

Girl Violence in the News (And How to Talk to Your Child about It)

Florida teens indicted for
cheerleader beating

 

 

From the violence of 6 Florida cheerleaders to three young girls on a playground in Pennsylvania, last week the issue of “Girl Bullying” hit the news in full force

Last week, two devastating stories about girls hit the national press. In one, a ten-year-old girl was yanked off of the monkey bars by two slightly older girls, who stomped on her head and her hip, causing permanent damage. The other was a videotape of 6 Florida cheerleaders seeking YouTube fame by beating a fellow cheerleader over a period of thirty minutes, causing a concussion and hearing loss, among other injuries. So far, the girls (and some of their parents) are blaming the target for demeaning messages on My Space, and none of the teens has demonstrated remorse.  Over the weekend, staff members of  the “Dr. Phil” show further fanned the publicity flames by posting bail for one of the girls in order to get her on their show  Empowering Parents asked bullying expert and award-winning author Peggy Moss to address these issues, noting, “Even if the press perhaps sensationalizes these events, don’t we still have to address these bullying episodes in order keep our children safe?”

“To assert that these stories teach us that girls are hateful and vicious by nature would be as ludicrous as outlawing cheerleading after last week, because the sport breeds violence.”
—Peggy Moss

First of all, in my opinion both of these incidents were criminal acts involving aggravated assault, and neither was, or should be, described as “bullying.”

My answer to your original question is two-fold.  First, in these instances, it’s not clear to me that the press is sensationalizing.  I saw the video (as much of it as I could bear to watch) and I read several accounts of the playground story. What happened is, in fact, monstrous. What makes the coverage sensational is the extent to which the stories take precedence over other news. This is not surprising. As parents, we have ask ourselves two questions: One is, how do we talk to our kids about what they are likely to see on YouTube or in the paper? The other is, do we now fold this bizarre, sick behavior of a few children into the dialogue about what it means to be a girl and have friends?

As to this last question, my answer is, “Please, no.” We make a mistake, (and I think it’s a big and potentially harmful mistake) when we use extremes as the basis for rule-making, or, worse, as a basis for assumptions about our child’s behavior. I am sorry that the press did not cover what happened on countless other playgrounds in North America last week, where kids ran around and played tag and jumped rope and scuttled across play sets, sharing ideas, making up stories.  While these simple exchanges did not constitute news, they were the overwhelming reality of last week.

These non-newsworthy playground moments benefit from the practical lessons we teach our children about ways to resolve conflict, allowing them to express anger in healthy ways, and giving them safe places (and people) to turn to – and they are no less applicable after these stories have hit the press. Our children need to believe that they are capable of making and maintaining meaningful relationships, and that we know that they are. If we let these outsize incidents dictate how we talk and think about girls, we risk sending our daughters a message that we are afraid for them, or that their friends are potentially dangerous, at a time when they most need to hear that we have faith in their judgment and they can count on their peers. The reality is: most of them can.  As adults we can help our daughters become savvy media consumers, and in so doing, critique not only how these situations are portrayed, but also how women and girls are portrayed in the media. We can help them put these incidents in perspective.  To fail to do so would risk unleashing a sense of distrust and suspicion that will spread as quickly and furiously as these news stories. 

To assert that these stories teach us that girls are hateful and vicious by nature would be as ludicrous as outlawing cheerleading after last week, because the sport breeds violence. No doubt some statements of this kind will be made over the upcoming weeks, and as parents, we will be called upon to help our children make sense of what they are hearing. As with any traumatic news, take cues from your child as to what they are ready to hear, and provide answers to the questions they ask, targeted to their age and maturity level.

The cheerleader story is particularly ripe for interpretation, as it involves social networking (The MySpace and YouTube component) and violence. Help your child look at the information that is being provided critically. If your child wants to discuss this incident, consider asking age-appropriate questions that have a broader application. For an older child, it is reasonable to have a fairly in-depth discussion about the situation. Again, be sure to take your daughter’s lead.  You can start the ball rolling, though. Ask questions that open up the conversation, like “What if the girl targeted by cheerleaders did post hateful messages? Does she deserve to have been beaten up? What about the kids who were there and did nothing to protect the target? What could they have done differently? Why would it have been hard to act, and what would you do to get you over that hurdle so you could do the right thing? Do you think that there are times that Internet communications get ‘heated up’ differently from real conversations? What do you think is the best thing to do if you have a really big problem with someone at school?” And finally, be sure to tell her this: “No one is perfect. Do you know that you can come to me when you feel like you are in over your head? I want you to do that.” 

If you are concerned that your daughter is disturbed by this story, or feels that something similarly horrific might happen to her, try to find out why. If she doesn’t want to talk to you about it, that’s okay. Try again later, or provide her with another adult to speak with, whether that’s a friend, a relative, or a therapist. 

I think that for any parent, reading about a child who is sick or hurt, and in particular, violently hurt, triggers for us a visceral response that is hard to keep under wraps. "What if that happened to MY CHILD?" We ask ourselves, and we well up like mama bears, ready to fight. This is a natural, maybe even involuntary, impulse. But that impulse cannot lead to us telling our children to “Watch out for your friends—they might turn on you at any instant and beat you senseless.” 

Stop. Think. Listen. Talk. As adults, we can help our children navigate the news. No doubt they are as horrified and confused by these stories as we are. Maybe even more so.    

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About Peggy Moss, J.D., Bullying Prevention Expert

Peggy Moss has worked to eradicate bullying for more than a decade, first as a prosecutor with the Department of Attorney General in Maine, and later as an educator and curriculum developer with the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence and the Cromwell Disabilities Center. Peggy has written three award-winning books for elementary-aged children on bullying, Say Something, Our Friendship Rules, co-authored by Dee Dee Tardiff, and One of Us.  She also gives seminars and bullying awareness workshops to healthcare providers, educators, students and parents in the United States and Canada. Peggy is a graduate of Princeton University and the Washington College of Law at American University, where she was head of the Juvenile Justice Association.  For more information about Peggy, see www.SaySomethingNow.com.

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