ALEXANDRIA, Va. — “They don’t want me to be team captain,” a 6-year-old girl whimpers, wiping tears.
“Why don’t you guys want her to be captain?” a camp counselor asks.
“Because she can’t even spell popcorn,” a 6-year-old boy says.
“Can you spell popcorn?”
Early afternoon unfolds at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, where 50 kids, ages 5 to 16, navigate a social minefield of constant interaction. On this Friday, after devouring five boxes of Domino’s pizza in less than 10 minutes, the younger and older campers separate.
So does the drama.
They’re playing dodgeball in the gym, the senior campers. Tennis shoes pound the wood floor. Tempers flare. A 16-year-old boy throws the ball hard. A 16-year-old girl, Makiya Linear, calls him out.
“Yo, chill,” she tells him.
He responds with a crude sexual suggestion, punctuated with nasty name-calling.
Another girl, 13-year-old Monique Tyler jumps in. “What did you say to her?”
The boy fires back with derogatory slang.
Tyler and Linear, who attend school in Virginia and Maryland, innately understand what government researchers recently unearthed: As girls get older, they are 56 percent more likely to report being bullied for being girls than boys are for being boys, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection.
The latest data, gathered in 2012, reveals a national pattern: The gender-specific bullying gradually increases through elementary school and peaks in middle school. The disparity between male and female victims surges in high school, report numbers show.
One day at summer camp illustrates this evolution of bullying: Little kids bicker indiscriminately and promptly forget about it. They don’t typically throw gender barbs until about age 10, experts say. Teenagers, however, go for the emotional jugular, drawing gender lines. The bullying gender gap, here and across thousands of schools, widens with age.
“Bullying changes every year,” says Tyler, who turns 14 this fall. “When you’re a kid, you tease each other and tell on each other for no reason. It’s more of a game.”
“In high school, girls are vicious,” Linear adds. “They look for reasons to dislike you. It’s a power thing. It’s a territorial thing.’”
“But boys will spread lies and talk about your body,” Tyler says. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re too skinny’ or ‘Oh, you did this with this person.’”
Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, the book that inspired the movie “Mean Girls,” says bullying typically becomes gendered by fourth grade. It stems, she says, from a culture of careless parent comments like, “Boys are easy to raise” and “Girls are bratty.”
“We make it okay for boys to say mean things to girls,” she says, “and girls to say mean things to each other.”
That July afternoon, as the little kids play Brain Quest trivia, Linear and Tyler straddle bicycles before a 10-mile group ride. Backs turned, they chat about the dodgeball clash. The 16-year-old name-caller 10 feet away, laughing with a group of boys.
A counselor overhears and approaches the boy. “Were you calling people names today?”
“Who told you that?”
“Don’t worry about who told me that!”
“Not today, no,” the boy says, snickering. “But maybe yesterday.”
The counselor shakes his head. The girls ignore him.
They peddle away, beside the boys, toward 7-Eleven for a Slurpee.