Expert educates girls to rise above bullies

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. -- "Skinny. Hot boyfriend. Nice clothes. Long hair." As audience members yelled out the characteristics they think best describe a "high-social-status girl," Rosalind Wiseman wrote the words inside a box she drew on the board.

Outside the box, in red, she wrote several terms that these high-social-status girls use to describe those not included in their inner circle. These included "fat, wannabe, easy, loser" and other, less-appropriate words.

It's this social hierarchy that girls develop among themselves that spawns bullies -- dehumanizing people and perpetuating violence in the process, Wiseman said. The trend is observed as early as age 10 and marked by cliques, backbiting and scathing gossip, she said.

But as part of a conference titled, "Empowering the Young Women of Rhode Island," Wiseman -- author and co-founder of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that works with youth to help end violence -- brought her solution to Roger Williams University recently.

It was a message aimed mainly at parents and educators: "I believe overall, overall, overall that power and privilege in our society, racism, homophobia, gender biases, work together to mess people up," Wiseman told a group of about 100 that also included about a dozen high-school girls and several representatives of nonprofit groups statewide.

"This process of dehumanization is a connection to all the bad 'isms' in the world, and all these things conspire to make kids make the choices they do."

National attention

Empowering young women -- or, as Wiseman paraphrases it, helping them become socially competent and morally courageous enough to stand up for what is right -- is a phenomenon that has gained national attention in recent years as experts have begun to examine all the root causes of violence in modern society, she said.

In September, school-bullying victim Erika Harold was crowned Miss America, touting her chosen platform of empowering youth against violence.

And the issue turned heads in Rhode Island when up to 40 teens gathered in East Greenwich on Sept. 17 to watch what the police described as a rumble between high school girls from North Kingstown and East Greenwich, an incident which Wiseman had read about on The Providence Journal's Web site.

"When girls fight, physically fight, it always starts with someone saying something ugly -- gossip -- someone thinking about someone else's man or someone thinking they're all that," a wry Wiseman, 33, said. "We can talk about conflict resolution or anger management until we're blue in the face, but if we're not talking about what kids value, we're not answering their world."

In North Kingstown and East Greenwich, Wiseman speculated, the social hierarchy that existed within the schools had most likely been challenged by outsiders, and those with the power were trying to maintain the respect they command in their social groups.

"The person who has the power gets to do with that power what they want to the person who doesn't have power without consequence," she said.

The situation becomes more difficult, Wiseman said, when girls appropriate for themselves the traditional masculine characteristics -- strength and aggression, for example -- that they think best describe a high-social-status male.

"We're so focused on trying to be strong, on telling girls to have self-esteem, that we miss the point," Wiseman said. "Self-esteem is tricky because we're so focused on teaching it to the detriment of everything else, empathy, for example, that it can create cruel behavior."

Hope for solution

But there is hope for parents and educators trying to crack the social hierarchy and empower women to end violence, Wiseman said. Parents must be willing to admit that their children could be mean and must take a realistic approach to solving difficult problems, she said.

They must hold children accountable and own up to their own mistakes, never engaging in gossip, Wiseman said. Parents and teachers should discuss values with girls and identify interactions girls have with others in which those values are not manifested or, worse yet, contradicted, she said.

It's a daunting task, Wiseman said, but not an impossibility.

"Girls are not good. They're not evil. They're messy, just like every single one of us," she said matter-of-factly. "Girls are the absolute key to other girls navigating adolescence safely, but they can also be the seeds of their own destruction."

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