I arrived early to my daughter’s dance studio to give her a ride home. With time to kill, I sat down, opened up my laptop, checked my email, then mindlessly sat playing a game of digital solitaire, whilst listening to some music on my headphones. A group of girls stationed themselves behind me, well in earshot, and they started chatting. I know they were in grade 5 because part of their conversation was about what middle school they would go to next year. For the most part, I was able to attenuate to what was on iTunes, but there were a few words that caught my attention: “Blah, blah, blah cuts herself”, “blah, blah blah, lesbian”. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d be talking about such things. At what age does such talk begin for girls? I don’t know… I was moderately successful at being able tune them out, so I really don’t know exactly what they were saying, except that I perceived it to be derogatory. I ignored them. Such topics were new to them and bound to be exciting and confusing. They’d learn to be more tolerant. Right? Not my job to address it, right? And who would defend ME if one of them ran to their parent and complained about the old man who eavesdropped on their conversation and then proceeded to freak them out by lecturing them. That was trouble I didn’t need. I tried to focus on the music.
Another conversation grabbed my ear. I don’t think it was the same pair of girls, but certainly they were the same age. They were using the words “slut” and “bitch” to compare notes on some of their outside acquaintances. Now I was shocked. At 10 years old, do they know the meaning of the word “slut”? And they freely (and loudly) talk this way in front of an adult? And it was the same as it always is: one girl was dominant in the conversation, talking in a cool, jaded tone – too cool to care about anything, while the other was trying hard – too hard – to keep up. At 10 years old.
I felt, what? sad, I think… sad to think that my own 12 year old could easily be the bitch or slut they were talking about; sad that apparently this so-recently-popularized issue of bullying seems not to have made any difference, at least not in the dance studio; sad that my 12 year old likely hears and participates in similar conversations when she is out of my earshot; sad for the poor girls whose spirits have been assassinated by the time they’re 11.
I turned and glared at the girl talking. I gave her my best look of disapproval. She quickly whispered something to her friend and they beat it on out of there to continue their conversation in the change room. But I doubt my look of disapproval was very effective. The girls likely had a choice name to call me once they were hidden away in the change room.
I don’t feel particular hatred or anger toward the girls. They’re 10. They have not matured emotionally or intellectually enough to be capable of much empathy. Likely, they are not even aware of the meaning of their own words. They have learned this behaviour, and everything I know about learning theory would suggest that somehow the behaviour is reinforced.
You could say that this is none of my business, but you’d be wrong. This is very much my business. I’m a teacher who deals with the fallout from this kind of character assassination on a daily basis. I talk regularly in my classroom about the issue – about tolerance, but I don’t know how much good it does. After all, didn’t one girl from my grade 8 class turn out to be a brutal bully in later years? How did I not see that coming?
Surely the secret is in parenting? Do we model derogatory talk? Do we talk to our kids about the way they talk to and about other kids? Do we ourselves speak with intolerance about our kids’ peers – the kids in the class who are a bit different? Do we ourselves laugh about the awkward kid? the handicapped kid? What are we letting them watch on television? What are the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that are being expressed in the kids’ sitcoms, where the laugh track teaches that there is something hilarious about Freddy-the-Nerd being ‘deservedly’ humiliated by the starlet; or in commercials where a girl shoots down a boy who used her cell phone with his “eww… toe fingers”.
I dunno. Maybe I’m just in a bad space right now. I can’t see a way out. It just never goes away. And 10 year olds. What do you do?