The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life.
My 5-year-old girl is in kindergarten and is already getting a glimpse of "mean girl" behavior. I'm shocked by this, not as much as the time I hit my crotch when opening my car door, but still, I'm surprised.
I thought "mean girls," like the movie, didn't exist until high school. I'm naive I suppose. And every generation seems to start things earlier than the previous one. I'll probably have to meet my daughter's boyfriend in second grade. He'll come over to the house, I'll kneel down to shake his hand, and I'll ask him over grilled cheese sandwiches what he plans to do with the rest of his life.
My daughter told me her friend looked over at her and said, "You're boring." It hurt her, but mostly she was pondering what it meant. Honestly, how can a 5-year-old be boring? It seems to be impossible considering the amount of playing, dancing, and screaming that goes on with kids that age.
While I never experienced mean girls, I was exposed to mean boys. One, in particular, comes to my mind. I'll call him Dick. He ambushed me one day in the locker room at middle school. He gave me an atomic wedgie.
For the uninitiated, an atomic wedgie differs from a regular wedgie in that the back of the underwear has to come up over your head. It's an improbable feat with cotton briefs and more often than not the elastic tears from the foundation. After Dick had left, I held the scraps of my waistband. My underwear slipped down inside my pants, which was an odd sensation, but no match for the pain brought on by fabric yanked violently up my butthole.
I reminded her of all the things that make her exciting.
I'm sure there's a whole host of psychological reasons why people are mean. It could be to get a reaction or to see what it feels like to hurt someone. In some cases, it's because someone else was mean to them and they are paying it forward. It's entirely possible Dick went home, and his older brother gave him an atomic wedgie, and his father gave his older brother an atomic wedgie, and his grandfather gave his father an atomic wedgie, and that's the way it was for generations. Bullying was in their bloodline.
I hobbled home sucking back the tears. My mother knew something was wrong. I told her about Dick flossing my insides with my underwear. My father came home, and my mom told him the story. Dad called me down from my room, disturbing the self-soothing rocking I was doing on the floor in the dark, and he put his hands on my shoulders. He looked me in the eyes, taking a moment.
"Tomorrow, I want you to walk up to Dick and punch him in the nose." he said, nodding his head and releasing me from his grip.
"David!" my mother exclaimed, "he can't punch the boy."
"Why not," my dad asked. "You want him to be bullied for the rest of his life."
"Well, he can't punch someone every time they harm him for the rest of his life either."
"The only way to stop a bully is to show him you're not scared." my dad huffed.
This plan sounded good to me except for the fact I'd have to hit somebody. Not one of my strengths. My mother had another idea.
"Next time he picks on you tell him to go suck an egg." she said, folding her arms in self-satisfaction.
I stared up at her, incredulous.
"Jesus, Gin, what the hell does that mean? Why don't you just tell him to paint a bullseye on his face."
"That's what we use to say to the meanies when I was a kid."
"I'm sure it worked wonders."
"Oh stop it, you poo."
In case you can't tell my mother has always used the discarded terms of a bygone era. She's prone to calling people stinker and uttering phrases like cattywampus and rigamarole on a regular basis.
"Look, Gabe, you do what you need to. But what you can't do is let him pick on you. You have to stand up to him, or he'll never stop." My dad said, placing his hand on my cheek.
"Maybe I could change schools?" I asked.
"You can't run away from your problems honey." My mom said.
I wasn't going to tell my daughter to punch that girl in the nose. There's no need to be extreme. It's not Lord of the Flies; it's kindergarten. Telling her to say "go suck an egg" seemed even more ridiculous now then when I was a kid.
I reminded her of all the things that make her exciting. I told her that other people's opinion of her, good or bad, doesn't matter. It's how you feel about yourself that counts. I read that in a self-help book somewhere, but that doesn't make any less true. My daughter will never know where I got that advice anyway. Unless she reads the same self-help book someday, but she'll think I said it first. Then she'll say "wow, my dad is brilliant." So I'll look like a guru in about 20 years. Even better would be is if she never reads the self-help book because she doesn't need it.
Honestly, how can a 5-year-old be boring?
My job as a dad, as I see it, beyond unconditional love and carrying her on my shoulders until she exceeds the weight limit, is to give her the tools to grow up confident so she can help herself. Then she'll be ready to navigate this minefield of mean girls who will potentially tell lies about her, tease her, or bully her.
The only other answer is to homeschool her, but I don't feel comfortable picking on my daughter. And prom would be sad. The truth is knowing how to deal with cruel people is a skill and necessary in the world. I just don't want her to get too much practice.
As far as my bullying story, I went to school the next day, and Dick found me in the locker room. He came towards me, and I backed up against the tiled wall. I slapped at his arms, yelling, as he came in for the wedgie. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. He got annoyed with trying to grab me and waved his hand saying, "You're not worth it." I almost said back, "I'm worth a lot." No need to get cheesy I thought. Instead, I silently put on my book bag and walked out with my head up.
Dick didn't bother me again after that day.