May 9, 2007

Mean Girls “Queen Bees and Wannabes’ Author to Advise Local Girl Scouts on Coping With the Pressures of Adolescence

By LIBBY KEELING, Courier & Press staff writer 464-7450 or [email protected]

So, there was this girl. She hated this other girl, so she wrote this totally despicable song about her, recorded it, uploaded it to a computer and forwarded the music file to all her friends.

And there was this guy, who cut and pasted a girl's head onto an Internet picture of a partially clothed obese body. He forwarded the altered picture to the whole school, and another girl printed it and slipped a copy through the vent in the girl's locker.

"I have 20 examples of that every day," said Rosalind Wiseman, author of the New York Times best-seller "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence."

Once the business of playgrounds and notes passed in school hallways, technology has launched bullying into cyberspace. No depths are too low, and kids are limited only by their own creativity in completing the sentence: "Wouldn't it be funny, if.. ?"

"Now there's literally no end to what you can do to humiliate someone," said Wiseman, 38, during a telephone interview from her home office in Washington, DC.

"The Internet is remarkably adept at exacerbating the problem. It's like the mask of anonymity. Is it really going to hurt somebody not there in front of you?"

Kids are going to bully each other. When parents don't hold them accountable, Wiseman said, "It's like a free-for-all."

The seemingly compulsive need to humiliate, dismiss and ridicule others is the foundation of much of her work. The movie "Mean Girls," starring Lindsay Lohan, is based on "Queen Bees and Wannabes."

"Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads: Dealing With the Parents, Teachers, Coaches, and Counselors Who Can Make - or Break - Your Child's Future" was published last year, and Wiseman plans to release her first work of fiction, set in a large public high school, in 2008.

"You're looking for a place. You're looking to belong. You're a part of a group by making someone else not a part of the group," she observed. "People don't speak out because then they would get aligned with the person being bullied. So you're silent or you join in."

On April 20 and 21, Wiseman will share strategies for breaking the cycle of bullying with Girl

Scouts, their leaders and parents as well as the Mayor's Education Roundtable and a variety of professionals who work with children. The Raintree Council and St. Mary's Hospital for Women and Children are sponsoring her appearances in Evansville.

"We think of ourselves as advocates for girls and we are very concerned about girls' issues, what affects them, what makes girls do what they do, what are their concerns," said Jeani Harl, director of community relations for Girl Scouts of Raintree Council.

"One of the things that's rather obvious when you talk with girls is they have a lot of social pressures, and sometimes the social pressures involve bullying and feeling a lot of pressure to fit in, a lot of pressure to meet standards that are set by the culture, in media, in a lot of other ways that are sometimes harmful to girls."

Wiseman - who founded the Empower Program, a national violence prevention initiative - said she will provide participants with the social competency skills necessary to navigate "Girl World."

"Kids are going to make mistakes about this stuff," she said. "It really takes a cultural shift in a school or organization: that you're putting this front and center."

Many times parents, and other adults, don't know what to do to help girls facing serious issues related to societal pressure, Harl said. About 200 Girl Scouts in first through 12th grades and adults who care about them have registered for Wiseman's program.

"For the girls, we hope that they get a couple of things out of this. No. 1, that they don't feel alone when they feel pressures from the culture that are negative," she said.

"And No. 2, that we give them tools to use to navigate that successfully in a healthy way. The goal really is to help them become successful adults, and successful adults are people who can't duck conflict and they can't duck pressure. They know how to use it in a way that is healthy."

Understanding the importance of treating yourself and others with dignity is a crucial part of that process and a component of the "Owning Up" curriculum Wiseman developed after working with students in Washington.

After graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a degree in political science, Wiseman returned to Washington, where she was raised. She had just earned a first-degree black belt in karate and began teaching self-defense to high school girls.

For the next eight years, Wiseman worked with teens both in and out of school settings. Her teaching experiences raised many questions explored in "Owning Up." The curriculum examines the root of violence in communities, power, privilege, ethics, school safety, bullying and cultural expectations.

"One of the ways that people belong is how well they fit in to what a guy should be and a guy shouldn't be and what a girl should be and shouldn't be," Wiseman said.

Those who don't fit the mold may be singled out, dismissed, ridiculed or targeted, Wiseman said. Being belittled by people thought to be friends can have enduring consequences.

Belonging to a social circle that treats its own members badly leads to bad relationships with intimates, she said. Members of the group learn to accept bad behavior and the uncertainty of never knowing who the next target will be.

"I think that's, frankly, probably the worst," Wiseman said. "It sets you up for being treated really badly by boys."

Learning ways to voice hurt feelings, express anger, make apologies, cope with peer pressure, deal with rejection and find adult advocates can help mitigate some of the havoc girls wreak in one another's lives.

"You have to understand where it's coming from. You have to understand that it's normal to have these feelings," Wiseman said. "This is really about teaching kids to be morally courageous."


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