- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

How was your day?” I ask as my daughter climbs into the van.

She lifts her backpack onto the seat next to her and clips her seat belt with a self-satisfied smile. “Great,” Amy says enthusiastically. “One of the girls said I’m cool.”

“Wow. How does she know?” I ask.

“Mom, that should be obvious,” Amy says, implying my ignorance.

It isn’t obvious, at least not to me.

She smiles and waves goodbye to a group of girls standing on the sidewalk and then settles back, crosses her legs and sits up tall in her seat. Clearly, she’s feeling good about herself.

I change the subject, checking on the evening’s homework assignments and confirming that she turned in the permission slip for an upcoming field trip. It’s the typical conversation of a Tuesday afternoon.

In the back of my mind, though, I know today is more than just an average Tuesday. Today, a popular girl created the possibility that my daughter might be popular, too. Today, Amy felt accepted and appreciated. Today, her world seems, like, totally awesome.

Tomorrow, it will all be different.

Sure enough, not the next day, but a week later, the girl who told Amy she was cool has decided my daughter is, in fact, weird.

Because she’s the alpha girl, her declaration is met with universal agreement and approval by the rest of the cool crowd. Suddenly, just as quickly as Amy’s social status had risen, she returns to the rank of “outsider.”

This Tuesday, when I pick her up after school, there are tears and trauma as Amy tries to understand the fickle nature of friendship.

She thinks maybe this is just a blip on the social screen — a recess gone bad; a misunderstanding.

She doesn’t know why she’s weird or why anyone would tell her such a thing even if she thought so, or why others who previously behaved like friends would believe it. She’s confused.

I have been down this road with daughters two times before. I could see it coming. By third grade, the egalitarian atmosphere of kindergarten coalesces into well-established cliques that mandate who may sit together at lunch, who may swing on the swing set during recess, who is invited to after-school play dates and weekend sleepovers.

Sure enough, here I am again in third grade with a daughter who has just discovered there are “it” girls, and they have the power to decide whether she is one of them.

Kind and caring one day, caustic and cruel the next, “it” girls define who is cool (like them).

They’re natural leaders, assembling an entourage of followers whose role it is to work at continually winning the “it” girls’ approval. Of course, bestowing approval is what makes their role as “it” girls relevant, and thus, their favor changes from day to day — and often from math class to music.

This is why Amy was cool one week and weird the next.

“Why do they think I’m weird?” she wonders as I tuck her into bed. It’s a question I anticipated, just as I expected she would soon discover the truth about her place in the social order.

“Well, here’s the thing,” I begin gently, “I don’t think you’re weird, but I think you’re different. And some people think being different is weird.”

What follows is the first of what I know will be countless conversations about why she doesn’t fit in and how it feels to be excluded.

For now, she concludes it’s because I won’t buy clothes for her at Limited Too or let her have Bratz dolls or carry a purse to school. She’s savvy enough to understand that certain rules apply to getting close to the “it” girls, some of which clearly are about owning the right stuff and showing it off.

Later, she’ll realize it’s more than that.

Later, she’ll understand she is different because we’re raising her to be different, a unique individual, free to explore her own interests, her own style and her own self-expression. She’ll figure out that it was more important to us that she be herself than that she be like — or liked by — the “it” girls or anyone else.

Thankfully, I know this strategy will work. I expect Amy will learn one of these days, as her older sisters have discovered, that “it” girls are important only if you seek out their affirmation. As soon as you don’t care anymore, you negate their significance. Of course, this was always possible, even if it seemed unthinkable back in third grade when you first experienced their awesome power.

Not that this is any comfort on a Tuesday night, with tears streaming down your tiny face.

In the yellow glow of her night light, she seems so small to me that I can’t believe we’re already here, in third grade, negotiating the rough waters of female friendship. And yet I know this is just the beginning.

Fortunately, I’m confident I can get her safely to shore on the other side. What I don’t know is how to get her there without her heart breaking every so often along the way.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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