As a child, Rachel Simmons admits that she bullied others and was bullied herself. “I stood in half-lit empty hallways, a stairwell, the parking lot. In all of these places I remember standing alone. I cried to my mother while she cooked. The sorrow was overwhelming, and I was sure I was the only girl ever to know it.” The author the New York Times bestseller “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls” (Harcourt, 2002), considered the seminal book on girl-to-girl cruelty, Simmons travels across the United States speaking to girls, parents, and teachers about female aggression. She will appear Thursday, February 16, at the College of New Jersey’s music building.
During a midnight snack and chat session in college Simmons, now 29, learned she wasn’t alone in her childhood experiences; she discovered other girls who had been bullied by the very same girl who had bullied her. Later, during graduate school in England as a Rhodes scholar, she went to the library in search of information about girl bullying and found very little had been written on the subject. She sent out an E-mail to everyone she knew in the United States asking them if they had ever had any such experiences and to share them. She asked each of her recipients to forward the message to their women friends.
Simmons had no idea of what she had triggered. Within 24 hours, she was inundated with an outpouring of stories from women of every age and background about experiences that had happened years ago where the pain was as fresh today as it was then. The floodgates were open.
Simmons, who is unmarried and lives in Brooklyn, embarked upon a journey in pursuit of understanding why and how girls could be so devastatingly mean to each other. Her mission was to interview girls between the ages of 10 and 14, the years when bullying peaks. She visited 30 public and private schools across the country, covering the socioeconomic spectrum, mining stories from interviews with 300 girls about the heartaches and hurts inflicted upon them not by the opposite sex but by their own.
Girl-on-girl cruelty is most often carried out in the hallways, locker rooms, and cafeterias of schools, the battlegrounds where girls wage their campaigns of psychological aggression. In her book, Simmons presents both an expose of and instruction manual for treating girls’ aggression. Unlike the typically physical aggression of boys using their fists, aggression carried out by girls is usually quieter, more subtle, often conducted underneath the radar of parents and school authorities, and ultimately can be more destructive and can have long-term consequences.
Simmons contends that girl-on-girl bullying could be avoided if girls were encouraged to acknowledge their aggression. “There’s more social permission for boys to be physically aggressive and punished less often for that kind of behavior than for girls. The difference is subtle. It’s not that aggression is encouraged or rewarded in boys; they are just not punished for it in the same way girls are. Consequently, the sum of those messages allows boys to channel aggression in ways to which girls have no access. There is no evidence that boys feel more aggressive. But they show it more.”
Simmons believes that girls need to be shown the proper channels for expressing their feelings more openly, to empower them to negotiate conflicts, and to define relationships in different, healthier ways. “I remember never understanding why when girls were mad they didn’t talk. I always felt perplexed and hurt by their silence. Girls grow up in a world that tells them to be nice all the time. They’re not taught how to express themselves and so they don’t have the skills to navigate conflict. They will shut down because they’re afraid of having the conversation and showing the anger. They think, I don’t want to say the wrong thing, what if it comes out wrong, I’m mad at her. Some of them grow up in homes where they see that when their mothers are angry they clam up. So they model behavior where they’re shutting people out.”
One of the major points Simmons tries to relay is that conflict-free relationships don’t exist. “Instead of thinking conflict ends relationships, girls can learn that they can’t survive without it and should not let fear control them,” she says.
Simmons was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Rockville, Maryland. Her father is a member of the Maryland General Assembly and an attorney. Her mother is a retired teacher who taught Jewish history in high school. She has one younger brother. She pursued women’s studies and political science at Vassar College and graduated in 1996. In 1998 she went to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.
Growing up, she says, she was always surrounded by a strong circle of girlfriends and still had her own experiences with bullying. “Bullying is a result of not how many girls there are but what kind of girls there are. If the school is not focused on ethical behavior and is a classic prep school, the bullying there is more likely to go unregulated.”
Right now she is working on another book on how to increase emotional intelligence in girls. I ask her, Is there anything you’ve learned along the way that you wish you had known growing up, anything where you say, gee, I wish I could bottle that? She says: “I want girls to know that not everyone is going to like you and that’s okay because you will find someone who does like you. It’s pretty exhausting to try to please everybody.”
Simmons offers some tips for raising a girl who will be less likely to carry out acts of psychological aggression against other girls.
Let them make mistakes. “You need to create a space for your daughter to make mistakes and to learn from them. Let your daughter feel comfortable with screwing up.”
Let her know she doesn’t have to be perfect. “Help your daughter be able to say she’s sorry and admit her limitations as opposed to trying to be a perfect girl all the time. If she makes a mistake and apologizes in a sincere way, reward that.”
Be a good model. “A parent should model personal responsibility. Act in a way she can observe and see as a good pattern to follow.”
Foster empathy. “Consistently promote empathy in your child by asking questions such as, ‘How do you think it makes so-and-so feel to have this happen to her?’ Being able to feel empathy is the precursor to not committing these aggressive acts. Teach her how to feel as much as possible how other children feel and learn to sympathize with the underdog.”
Curb computer time. “Limit the amount of time you allow your kids to spend online. The IM shouldn’t be on constantly like a radio. Limit their access just as you would do with television. Too much time online leads to trouble.”
Take these issues seriously. “Make sure you have consequences for acts of aggression that you witness. Your children should know that you take psychological aggression seriously.”
In her book Simmons calls the silent treatment “the most pointed kind of relational aggression. Silence throws up an impenetrable wall, shutting down the chance for self-expression, and more importantly, the opportunity to play a proactive role in one’s conflicts.”
Simmons recommends that those who attend the February 16 event bring paper to take notes, and most importantly, bring their daughters and be prepared to have a good time together. She says not only will participants learn about the types of psychological aggression, understand the root causes of female aggression, and understand the focus of girls’ social power and structure of social conflict, they will also leave knowing some concrete strategies to help their daughters prevent difficult situations and navigate through them if they find themselves there.
Rachel Simmons, Thursday, February 16, 7 p.m., College of New Jersey, Music Building, Ewing. The author of the New York Times bestseller “Odd Girl Out” presents a discussion of aggression in girls. Books will be available for purchase. Seating is limited. Register via E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-737-6379.