(istock)

When I found a crumpled paper in my daughter’s backpack, I thought it was trash. I pulled it out to toss it and saw it was actually a note from her beloved best friend. My stomach plummeted to my heels when I read what it said. “Please forgive me, but we need to move on from each other.”

Really? I thought. Did my second-grader just get a kiddie version of a Dear John letter?

Because I have zero ability to chill, I waited about 60 seconds before discussing it with my daughter. She seemed relieved that I’d found it, but when I asked her if she wanted to discuss it, she shook her head. Fat tears that she fought mightily slid down her cheeks. I hugged her and told her I’d been in her position before and it really hurt, but I survived. I said the things I thought a supportive, loving mother should say and kept the focus on her, not the other little girl.

“I believe in your heart and your ability to make good friends. You’re going to come out the other side of this.”

Inside, however, I was panicking like the house was engulfed in flames. Had I said enough? Did I let her have her feelings without trying to fix them? Was she really going to be okay? Was there anything more I could do to help her through this first great heartbreak?

When I reached out to my mom friends for support and suggestions, they cooed in sympathy. Almost every one of them said something about how “mean” girls can be. “And so it begins,” said more than one, referring to the treachery and backstabbing that is considered de rigueur for girlhood.

While I cringe in sympathetic sadness thinking of the note and the hurt it brought my daughter, I won’t buy into the mean-girl narrative.

Each time someone tried to demonize my daughter’s now-ex BFF, I stopped them. “She’s just trying to get some space,” I said, suddenly thrust into the strange role of defending the 8-year-old whose missive had wounded my daughter.

I love my kid, but I can see how her way of loving might be overwhelming.

Like me, my daughter bonds in a fierce and all-consuming way. Our kind of intense love isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I can’t begrudge a second-grader for wanting a little space from my daughter, who no doubt sought — and maybe even demanded — reciprocal devotion and exclusivity. I’ve seen it with my own eyes — my daughter wanting her BFF all to herself at free choice time, during recess and on field trips. There’s nothing wrong with how my daughter approaches relationships — in fact, it’s part of what makes her who she is. But there’s also nothing wrong with her friend needing something else. Namely, space to explore other friendships.

My daughter is having a tough time with this breakup, but I reject the mean-girl narrative because perpetuating it won’t help her. The myth that little girls are mean and prone to drama is a little too misogynist. Framing our daughters’ interests and missteps in friendships as petty and drama-filled diminishes the important social and emotional work they’re doing. By brushing it under a “girls are mean” narrative, we are also actively devaluing what’s important to them: attachments to their peers.

We don’t demean our son for not mastering his interests, which currently include basketball, soccer and Pokémon. In fact, I recently watched my son and a group of his friends, mostly five- and six-year olds, playing basketball. Less than 10 percent of the balls made it through the hoop. His soccer team has an even worse success rate. Yet the stories we tell about his childhood development don’t focus on failures. We simply say he’s into soccer and basketball.

My daughter and her friend are into figuring out relationships. They are doing just as well at that as my son and his peers are doing at collecting Pokémon cards with high damage values and making free throws at recess.

I want to spare my daughter the heartbreak of a friend who needs space, but even more than that, I want to spare her the stereotype of being a victim of yet another so-called mean girl. Even in the aftermath of the breakup note, when I hear stories about alliances drawn among the girls in the classroom, I don’t reach for easy labels that set our girls up for future labels that can be much worse.

There is so much that my daughter and her friend are getting right. They’re negotiating different levels of intellectual, social and emotional development. They’ve both asked for help from their peers. They’re learning how to ask for what they need from friendships. These skills will serve both of them for the rest of their lives. Not a day goes by that I don’t have to negotiate space and intimacy in my relationships. Yes, tears have been spilled, but I’m okay with that. It’s excruciating to see my child in pain at the end of a school day, but I have no interest in raising a child who doesn’t feel deeply about relationships and attachments.

I won’t pretend, even for my 7-year-old, that relationships should always be tidy, make sense and feel good. She needs to know that even in the best of friendships, there are conflicts, tears and hurt feelings. The truth is that relationships are fulfilling and deeply rewarding, but they are also wildly messy, complicated and confusing, at least some of the time.

The paucity of language and options for describing what goes on in our daughters’ friendships flattens their experience, diminishes their skills and ultimately limits their choices. Let’s reframe these painful friendship moments in a new way by avoiding the temptation to label our daughters as either mean girls or hapless victims. Why can’t they both be emotionally alive girls who are flexing and developing their vitally important relationship muscles?

Christie Tate is a lawyer and writer who lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.  She’s on Twitter @TheOutlawMama.

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