This year, I spoke with thousands of girls around the country about friendship and bullying. After the school assemblies and workshops, these students, who ranged from age 8 to 17, clustered around me looking for advice about their friendship woes.
Two of 2015’s most popular questions:
1. What if I ask a friend to stop doing something mean, and she doesn’t listen?
2. What if I try to apologize to a friend and she doesn’t accept my apology?
The questions seem different at first, but they point to two closely related skills many parents neglect to teach their girls: knowing when to let something go, and step away from a situation that isn’t serving you.
In the age of girl power, we’re loath to send a message of surrender to our girls. To the contrary: we’ve doubled down on giving them permission to speak up and fight for their rights. This is a good thing. In just two generations, we’ve made a serious dent in millennia of oppression and stereotype.
But what if in our drive to show girls how to speak up, we’ve neglected to teach them how to be quiet? What if in our push to help girls fight for what matters to them, we’ve forgotten to tell them it’s best to give up and walk away?
We typically speak up in relationships to right a wrong. But part of what makes relationships complex is that it's not always possible for them to meet our needs. Friends let us down. They forget to ask about us or text us back. They do stupid things.
Yet I encounter many girls (and parents) who are easily angered by the missteps of friends — and who suggest to girls, with little provocation, that every wrong must be made right. For them, “let it go” is for the movies.
Reacting to every slight or let down is neither realistic nor fair; it sends the message that we expect the other person to be flawless in relationship. But no one is perfect, and no one relationship can ever meet all our needs. Teaching girls to agitate over every problem implies that relationships, and people, can bend to our will.
In fact, girls need to learn that there will always be situations that are beyond our control. Sometimes true girl power means accepting that we are actually vulnerable, and even powerless — then figuring out how to adapt and have our needs met in other ways. That is the stuff of true resilience, a vital protective factor teens have increasingly struggled with in the United States.
Persistent conflict gives girls a reputation for being too demanding of others. And when girls are hard on their peers, it hints at similarly ruthless expectations of themselves. If parents encourage a girl to be more flexible with others, it may also help her learn to be more compassionate with herself.
Learning to accept disappointment without always acting on it, and allowing someone to fall short of expectation, teaches a skill that can serve girls in every area of life. Whether it’s at school, on a sports team, or in romance, girls will encounter challenges in relationship that are trivial or intractable. Instead of pushing girls to pour themselves into situations not worthy of their energy and time, parents can ask some of these questions:
How likely is this person to change their behavior?
What might your relationship gain by talking together about this problem? What might your relationship lose?
Even though this friend has let you down, what other important things does s/he give you? On balance, do you get more than you lose in this relationship?
Are there other friends who can give you what this friend may not be able to?
When a girl owes an apology — instead of seeks one — the same idea applies: We can’t control whether someone will forgive us. While it’s admirable to summon the courage to come clean with a friend, if the gesture isn’t reciprocated, use the painful moment as an opportunity. Girls can learn that we can only take responsibility for our own actions — but not others’. We can do the best we can, and try as hard we are able, but that’s about all we can do.
When a friend refuses to accept an apology, it’s a sign that the friendship is probably not a good fit for either of you. In the words of one author, “it’s called a breakup because it’s broken.” Because girls are prone to blaming themselves when friendships end, it’s critical to help girls adopt a different perspective. If it doesn’t go our way, it may not have been meant to.
That doesn’t mean parents should be cavalier about a friendship’s end. Girls are passionate about their friendships, and the loss of a close friend can be heartbreaking. Parents must empathize first, and allow their daughters to grieve. When the time is right, parents can also help girls keep in mind the big picture lessons these tricky friendship situations can teach.
Rachel Simmons is the author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl. She is co-founder of Girls Leadership and develops leadership programs for Smith College. Follow her on Twitter @racheljsimmons.