Girl Charge -- Empowering Our Youth
Girls, we are in serious need of some good P.R. because everyone thinks we're mean. If you don't believe it, consider this. When people say boys will be boys, they're really saying boys will be rambunctious. But when we hear girls will be girls, we all know it's not exactly a compliment. It means girls are way too likely to be back-stabbing, gossipy or malicious.
Melissa Norman, M.A., founder of Girl Charge, doesn't believe girls are predisposed to be cruel. She's working overtime and with a contagious passion to teach girls to be kinder, especially as they relate to each other. Girl Charge's mission is to establish safe, social settings in which to promote the physical, social and emotional well-being of girls. Facilitating after-school workshops and Saturday programs called "Club Ophelia" and "Full of Ourselves," Norman is teaching girls about the effects of something called relational aggression. Sadly, most girls have experienced it firsthand so it doesn't take them long to catch on. Even the youngest of the participants can recall having her feelings hurt by some girl who tried to demean her.
Girl Charge participants realize they've fallen victim, in part, to a societal expectation. They learn this negative behavior by hanging out with other girls, but then it's reinforced because our culture not only expects but is tolerant of girls acting this way (watch any teenage sitcom.) At Girl Charge, Melissa Norman makes it clear from the start that people need to stop saying, "oh well, it's just how girls act." As with other destructive behaviors, girls have a choice to behave differently. Programs are based on the belief that if girls are taught that teasing, social exclusion and other forms of female bullying are NOT the norm, they will then have the knowledge to transform their relationships into something positive and powerful.
Melissa Norman took time from her busy schedule to answer these questions:
MV: What is relational aggression? Is it the same thing as bullying?
MN: Relational aggression is the use of social behaviors to harm, manipulate or exclude another person. The Guilford County School System defines bullying as "discrimination based on a person's real or perceived race, color, sex, religion, creed, political belief, age, national origin, linguistic and language differences, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, socioeconomic status, height, weight, physical characteristics, marital status, parental, status or disability".
MV: What can parents do if their daughter is being bullied by another girl?
MN: It can be difficult for parents to discern the roles in the "girl world". However, when girls are targets, they often pull away from social situations. They may ask to stay home from school, often complaining of stomachaches. The more parents are involved in talking with their daughters about their friendships, the more likely they are to be clued in when something seems different. Once asked, girls will typically open up but may not have offered the information on their own. Once she does talk,it's important to help her come up with an action plan of how she will handle the situation. Have several steps in place. If the first one doesn't seem effective, move on to the next.
MV: How might a parent know if their daughter is bullying others? If she is, how should they respond?
MN: Female instigators are interesting; they can be the seemingly sweet, helpful, teacher's pet. As females, we seem to be able to manipulate more than males. Therefore, teachers and adults often miss relational aggression because it is done in such a covert manner. At the same time, adults who pay attention to how their girls interact with other girls can typically see what role she plays. If she is quick to boss and seems irreverent to her friends, she may have relationally aggressive tendencies. Having her define who she is as a friend and how she wants to be perceived by others can be telling.
MV: What advice to you have for concerned parents about how to involve their daughter's school to help address a bullying-related problem?
MN: Well before I began working in this area, my Mom acted as an advocate for me in a relationally aggressive situation. I remember her saying that she went to my teacher and said,"I know my daughter isn't perfect. What is the other side of the story and what do we need to do to help these girls?" By not being defensive or accusatory, she was able to involve the teacher and principal and find a solution for the problem. It's difficult to not be emotional when your daughter is hurt, but being open to suggestions with a teacher, counselor or principal is beneficial.
MV: If there's one thing parents can do at home to help boost their daughter's self-esteem, what would that be?
MN: Finding ways to complement or praise her without focusing on looks or superficial ideals is key. As simple as that sounds, it's so easy to tell our daughter that she look pretty or is sweet, but telling her that you're proud of her hard work in soccer or her effort in piano can carry so much more weight. I also think it is imperative to give her several social outlets; engaging her with different groups of girls will discourage her from allowing one group or even one friend to define her. Sports teams, church groups, Girl Scouts, can all provide interaction with girls that can boost her self-esteem.
MV: What made you decide to start Girl Charge?
MN: After receiving my degree in counseling, I knew that I wanted to work with girls in helping them through the socially tumultuous upper elementary/middle school years, but couldn't find a local avenue to do so. I taught for several years and was frustrated with how overwhelmed so many of my students were with relationally aggressive situations. It can truly incapacitate a student; when her friends alienate her, she is often unable to focus on academics. However, teachers are not equipped to help girls, nor do they have time in the school day to do so. I decided that if I truly wanted to make a change in the culture of girls and our expectation of girls, I needed to start a nonprofit and begin programming.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE:
Girl Charge's colorful website is easy for both kids and parents to navigate, explains its mission in detail, provides a guide to its methods, lists valuable resources and gives information about their upcoming events.
New Moon serves girls ages 8 to 15 and brings their voices to the world.
Girls Explore offers materials that educate girls about the great women of the past and present, while helping turn our girls into the great women of tomorrow.
The mission of Mind on the Media is to promote healthy body images among girls and women by encouraging critical analysis of media messages.
Marcia Vaughn, M.S.W., is a social worker and freelance writer living in Winston-Salem, NC.