At 25, Kilpatrick can still recall the tensions and hurts of the lunchroom in her private school in Albany, Ga.
“I’d head toward an open spot in the lunchroom only to watch some girl throw her purse down…I ended up eating lunch in the restroom, especially if I had a test after lunch because I knew the worst thing I could do is go eat lunch with these girls because I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”
In high school, Kilpatrick found herself brooding about the lunchroom slights, the mean “I love your shoes…Just kidding” comments and the parties from which she was excluded.
When she realized that she wasn’t the only wounded teen, Kilpatrick resolved, “Instead of always talking about how bad middle school was, we either need to get over it or do something about it.”
She opted for action, creating Girl Talk, a program in which high school girls mentor middle school girls to help them deal with the “tween” and early teen years. From that first group Kilpatrick organized at her own high school in 2002, Girl Talk has spread to 35,000 girls in 43 states and six countries.
It is likely to spread even farther with the publication of Kilpatrick’s new book, “The Drama Years: Real Girls Talk about Surviving Middle School — Bullies, Brands, Body Image and More.”
Now married and living in Atlanta, Kilpatrick says Girl Talk and her book are forcing her to “step outside of my comfort zone. I am a complete introvert. But I am passionate about this.”
Her goal is more than creating less drama in middle school; she wants to create kinder girls who will grow up to be kinder women who don’t belittle others for sport.
Kilpatrick says schools and parents should not underestimate the power of even a handful of mean girls to infest a school with a negative social dynamic that can even affect the classroom performance of the classmates who become their victims.
“How they rise to the top, how they have these powers to control is probably a great mystery. But it is happening every day in almost every middle school hallway. A lot of it comes from their confidence. Most of these girls get a thrill out of bringing people down. In some psychological way, it brings them up.”
Kilpatrick has asked girls what parents and teachers can do to help.
They tell her: “We want our parents to have tough conversations with us about the really awful stuff. And the earlier the better. Be aware. Talk to us. Ask us questions. We are dying to tell you what is going on. What we need schools and parents to do is tell us that this behavior is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated. Do what you have to split these girls apart and keep them from forming this cluster.”
Kilpatrick encourages schools to adopt policies that minimize the opportunity for exclusion, from students eating lunch in the classrooms to assigned cafeteria seating. But the greater challenge is changing how girls feel about themselves and their worth.
Most girls define self-esteem as how their peers perceive them, says Kilpatrick. “We have to show them that self-esteem comes from within, that they can’t take it away from you…Most middle school girls feel very alone. As parents, you are the one thing that is not changing in their lives. You are that unwavering presence.”
If their daughters feel bullied or marginalized, Kilpatrick encourages parents to find “anchor” activities where the girls can gain a sense of purpose and belonging and feel good about themselves — sports, dance teams, church youth groups, babysitting jobs, volunteer posts. She advocates service as the best way to provide girls with perspective and shake them loose of too much self-focus.
In her conversations with middle school girls about why they mistreat each other, Kilpatrick says they have no explanation. But the perspective of distance allows high school girls to offer a reason.
“Almost all of them say that they went along with it because they were so relieved it was happening to someone else and not them. That’s why they didn’t stand up to it.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog
Haley Kilpatrick will appear at five Parent/Daughter workshops — free to the public — in the next two weeks. She encourages middle school educators and counselors to attend.
1. Monday, 7 p.m., KSU Center at Kennesaw State University, in partnership with Siegel Leadership Institute and Girls Inc and sponsored by WellStar.
2. Wednesday, 7 p.m., Decatur High School Performing Arts Center, in partnership with Decatur Education Foundation.
3. Thursday, 5:30 p.m, Warren/Holyfield Boys & Girls Club, Atlanta.
4. Friday, April 20, 7 p.m., Holy Innocents Episcopal School, Atlanta.
5. Saturday, April 21, 11 a.m., Bloomingdale’s Lenox Square