My daughter is in 4th grade and it is already clear that young girls can be very cruel to each other. I don’t see that with boys. Why is that?
Since this is a general question, I’m going to give a general response, while acknowledging that every situation and child is different. However, our general societal norms and stereotypes remain the same.
I actually don’t believe that girls are any more cruel to each other than boys are, they just express themselves differently and are socially driven to do so.
From birth on, gender differences are made clear. Girl babies are described as pretty, sweet, angelic, and dainty. Boy babies are described as handsome, strong, tough and solid. Before they even understand the words, they are being taught their social place in the world. As they grow, we often reinforce these roles encouraging our girls to stay sweet and kind and our boys to be rugged and tough and use words and actions to tell them so.
As infants and toddlers they cry when they are angry, or throw temper tantrums or have those really exaggerated pouts. These expressions are okay with us because they are young and they don’t know how to express themselves in a more mature fashion to get what they want. At some point, and the cut off varies for every child, we expect a different response from them and tell them so. When a little girl cries from anger, we will ask her what’s wrong and try to reason it out. When a little boy cries from anger, we are more likely to want him to just suck it up and may respond with a consequence if he doesn’t do so.
Boys like to be physical and so do girls, but we often view girls as physically weaker so we don’t support it as much. When boys wrestle and fight, we say “boys will be boys” and view it as a normal form of expression. If girls wrestle and fight, we hold our breath hoping that they won’t get hurt or tell them to use their words to work it out because we are not comfortable with this physical form of expression.
In both kid and grown up world, when we’re angry at someone, our immediate reaction is to want them to feel the same, if not more, pain than we do. Since it’s not “lady like” to raise a fist, girls are encouraged to use their words more to express their anger and work it out. Girls are more likely taught to communicate using words and identify their feelings and how to work through them. Boys are more often taught to push down their frustrations and deal with them independently, because it’s not viewed as “strong” to talk about your feelings. They may be feeling the same frustrations, but will express it differently. Because of this girls will more likely use words to hurt those that upset them which can often be cruel. Whereas boys are more likely to get into a physical altercation to create the pain they want to inflict. In both cases, it’s the way they’ve been socialized to respond. But let’s be honest, boys can use their words to be cruel too, especially towards girls because they’ve also likely been taught to “never hit girls.” It creates the desired pain and you get in less trouble for doing it.
As a side note, with the new bullying laws in place, this form of aggression will have stronger consequences, so teaching our children how to express their anger and jealousy in non threatening and hurtful ways will become increasingly more important (even though it should be already).
As parents, it’s our job to acknowledge and teach our children that words can hurt and need to be carefully chosen. They have a lasting impact that wounds us for much longer than a bruise on the arm. As their role models, we need to show them that it’s okay to be angry, but to use behaviors and tactics that help you calm yourself down and get what you want in a constructive and non threatening way. And damn, sometimes that’s ridiculously hard! But if you think of it in terms of all the therapy you’ll save them, totally worth it!