One day, a girl ran up to three friends and said, “You’ll never guess what I heard about Jane?”
One of the friends held up her hand and said: “Wait. Before you say another word, tell me, is it true?”
“Well, I don’t know for certain,” the first girl said.
“Is it a kind thing to say?” a second girl asked.
“Not really,” the first girl admitted.
“So, is it necessary to tell us?” a third girl asked.
“I guess not,” the first girl confessed.
“Then don’t say it,” the three friends replied.
That’s my dream. I suppose you could call it my Sufist dream, as the premise of the story is attributed by many to Rumi, a 13th Century Persian poet and Sufi mystic.
Unfortunately, that dream is often not a reality in schools. Sometimes, half-truths get told, things shared in confidence become public, and unkind words are spoken. While such behaviour is not limited to girls, it reflects the type of relational aggression more often seen amongst them.
It’s not that girls don’t have moments of generosity, kindness and compassion. They do. But they can also talk behind each other’s backs, tear each other down, and exclude one another. And although many don’t participate in nastiness, they may elect to remain bystanders, complicit through their silence. Such is the complicated social world of teenage girls.
Schools should never accept that such behaviour is simply the way it is. ‘Girls will be girls’ (or ‘boys will be boys’) is never an appropriate position to take. Nor is denial. Any school that claims to have rid itself of the scourge of meanness and bullying is either misinformed or willfully blind.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe that establishing a school culture where empathy and kindness are both modelled and expected is a good place to start. We need to deliberately facilitate open dialogue and reflection amongst our girls, not to publicly shame transgressors when they make mistakes, but to inspire them to become better people. We need to normalize and celebrate standing up for what is right so that bystanders feel empowered to intervene when problems arise. And we need to create processes that don’t re-victimize those who come forward to report problems. Everyone must believe that they contribute to our School’s collective culture of goodness and kindness.
I am not a Pollyanna. Seeing mistakes as opportunities for reflection and growth rather than punishment does not mean that egregious behaviours should not be addressed. I am a believer in natural consequence. But what I don’t believe in is rote application of punishment followed by an insincere apology from aggressor to victim. I don’t think that serves anyone’s best interests and often deepens wounds and resentment.
When problems arise, I believe schools should work toward a process of restorative practice that heals relationships and guides students to consider why they acted in the way they did. Through restorative practice we can examine what caused a girl to act in a hurtful way. What was she thinking? Why did she do what she did? How does she think her actions impacted the other girl or girls involved? Through honest and open dialogue, the hope is to mend and improve relationships, foster empathy, and strengthen our sense of shared community.
Building mutual understanding is hard work. In many ways, it’s far easier to mete out punishment and send everyone on their way. But without thoughtful probing, deeper reflection, and a safe place that allows for honesty, our girls won’t mature and grow. They lose the opportunity to learn.
I’m still hanging on to my dream that every girl will apply the test of truth, kindness and necessity before speaking about others. If my dream doesn’t come true, it doesn’t mean I will think less of our girls. I believe they are wonderful. But I also know they are young, imperfect individuals, muddling their way through the incredible complexities of adolescence. So, I live with the duality of expecting constant kindness and compassion, while knowing that hurtful words and actions will sometimes occur. I won’t give up, however, in my quest to reshape our school culture to one where kindness and constancy are the norm.