Smile Politely

Middle school girl syndrome

There’s some stubborn justice in middle school boys growing up to become the fathers of middle school girls. What we didn’t notice or understand in our early teens comes back to demand our full and constant attention, as our daughters come home sobbing or angry for no reason we can make sense of. The harsh truth is that as adults we are only marginally more competent to deal with the problems of middle school girls than we were as boys.

Like most middle school boys, I was oblivious to the complications of social interaction. Social standing for boys is determined by physical prowess, or sometimes by the willingness to do gross things in front of others. If someone offends you, you have a fight, and then afterward you are as likely to be good friends as bitter enemies. There may be a cruel simplicity to it, but if you want to improve your social standing, at least there are clearly defined paths for making it happen.

While boys spend their middle school years hitting each other over the head with blunt objects, girls spend their time sharpening their daggers. Unlike boys, they don’t parade their daggers around to let everyone know how big and powerful they are. They keep them politely hidden, and easily accessible. They lie in wait for an inevitable fashion transgression or some admission of desire for a newly downgraded pop icon. Then the daggers come out, efficient and merciless. Fear rules all, and friends are never as permanent as you think, or enemies as temporary as you hope.

Girls seem more committed to pack-like behavior at this age. Occasionally, a stray is caught, bound, and gagged, to increase the size of the pack and offer more protection to its members. Moving from one pack to another is dangerous, as one must gain the protection of another pack before the original pack’s protection is withdrawn. And changing packs creates a radioactive decay of undesirability, with each subsequent move decreasing the likelihood that any other pack will accept you.

Middle school girls are like the Amish, in a way — they both use shunning as the primary method of control and assimilation. Each pack seems to require at least one member be shunned on any given day. I don’t understand why this is necessary, but packs seem unable to survive without it.

The method of shunning appears to be logic problems. An example is below:

  • A and B are very good friends.
  • A tells B that C is not a very good friend. (This is a serious allegation, much like being accused of having communist sympathies in the 1950s.)
  • B decides not to talk to C in class one day.
  • C asks B why she is not talking to her.
  • B tells her that people told her she is not a good friend.
  • C asks who told her that.
  • B doesn’t want to say.
  • C insists it is only fair that she knows.
  • So, B tells C it was A.
  • C confronts A and says that B said that A was spreading rumors about her.
  • Now C is mad at A for “spreading rumors” and mad at B for believing them.
  • A is also mad at B for telling C that A told B that C was not a good friend.

Question: Who is wrong and should be shunned by A and B’s pack, and how many phone calls and hours of discussion will it take before the shunned person is allowed full-member privileges again?

This sample logic problem is one week’s worth of drama, and is pretty straightforward. The answer is that it takes hundreds of phones calls and 14 hours per day to sort out who should still be mad at whom. Or, in other words, the same amount of time it takes to solve every week’s version of the logic puzzle. In the end, it is the person with the lowest current status who is wrong and should be shunned. She will remain shunned until someone else fails next week’s logic problem, and then her status will move up one hard-earned notch.

If you’ve discovered a phenomenon which doesn’t make any sense and which you have no idea how to combat, the first thing you should do is give it a scientific sounding name, so as to provide the illusion of control over it. Hence, I’ve decided to name what is happening at my house Middle School Girl Syndrome (MSGS). I feel better already.

One thing I’ve noticed about MSGS is that its effects are not even limited to teenage girls. The very act of entering through the front door of any middle school in America will often cause parents, no matter how supportive and reasonable they have been up to that point, to become incredibly stupid, naïve, and/or embarrassing. MSGS also turns fashion magazines and malls into oracles of all that is worth knowing. MSGS causes cell phones and texting to become like oxygen, their absence causing faces to turn purple and warnings of imminent social death to be cried out.

It’s all a bit much for us former middle school boys. Demonstrating how strong I am or what gross things I am willing to eat seems to have no effect on my sixth and eighth grade daughters. Actually, that’s not true. It has a highly negative effect, and seems to confirm certain things about me to them.

There is hope for me though. After all, my son is only a year and a half away from entering middle school. At least he will have problems that are possible for me to understand.

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