Bestselling "Odd Girl Out" Author Presented Workshop
Rachel Simmons spoke to crowd of 700 last week at Columbia High School
The following was written by Sophie Panzer, CHS intern reporter.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever had two friends who didn’t like each other,” said Rachel Simmons during a parent-daughter workshop conducted in the CHS auditorium on Thursday evening, hosted by The Parenting Center and the Elementary School PTAs. Nearly every hand in the crowd of elementary and middle school-aged girls and their parents went up. After giving everyone a moment to look around and assess these numbers, she continued: “Now keep your hand raised if one of those friends ever tried to make you choose between them.”
Ms. Simmons, author of the bestselling book Odd Girl Out, used this example to explain a form of relational aggression, when girls use their friendship as a weapon to threaten and manipulate their peers. “When girls get mad, they go up to the person they don’t like and say, ‘I won’t be your friend anymore’. The weapon used here is not a fist or hurtful words. Girls love their friends, and when you threaten to take your friendship away from a girl, it can be really scary.”
Simmons offered valuable advice to girls and their parents regarding how to cope with hurtful parts of close peer relationships. The workshop emphasized the issues that every girl inevitably encounters at some point during the course of a friendship – fights, gossip, jealousy, frustration, and difficulty communicating.
Simmons’ presentation to an audience of more than 700 tied well into the South Orange/Maplewood school district’s strong anti-bullying policy. Whereas instances of male-oriented bullying might manifest themselves in fist fights or physical threats, the majority of girl bullying is passive-aggressive and occurs among friends.
After talking about relational aggression, Simmons explained about what she referred to as the NJZ, or “No Joke Zone.” A person’s NJZ was something that they didn’t like being teased about or made fun of– an insecurity that a true friend would respect. Friends who were less loyal and kind might tease or make fun of a person about her NJZ without considering her feelings.
If a girl acts distressed about this behavior, Simmons said, her friend often backtracks and says she is ‘just kidding’ in order to get away with saying something rude or mean without having to apologize. Simmons admitted that her own NJZ growing up was the size of her feet, which were too large to fit into a popular shoe brand. She invited the audience to share their own NJZs, which ranged from height and weight to shyness and hair color.
Ms. Simmons also spoke about the role girls’ emotions played in their friendships, pointing out that although most people think girls have and express a lot of feelings, it doesn’t mean that they are skilled at knowing exactly what they feel or sharing their emotions with others. “Telling people your feelings makes stuff happen,” said Simmons. She made sure to point out that telling someone what you feel during a fight might not immediately solve all your problems, but it might get you an apology.
“I don’t like apologies where you burn calories, though,” she said, giving a dramatic hair flip and body twist as she sarcastically dragged out the word “Sorry,” as an example of an insincere apology. She urged the adults attending the workshop to talk about their emotions around their children, and to ask them frequently about theirs (doing this in a moving vehicle with locked doors, she pointed out, was especially effective.)
Since articulating emotions can be difficult for girls, the next segment of the workshop was one that focused on communication and expressing feelings successfully. She invited student volunteers to demonstrate the three different types of communication she had explained– aggressive (hurtful towards other people), passive (non-direct and timid), and assertive (clear and respectful). She had them practice using assertive with their parents, as it was the most effective method to use when expressing concerns about a friendship with someone. Practice was paramount, she told her audience. “Everyone tells you to practice things like soccer and math,” she pointed out, “but no one tells you to practice communication.”
The last topic Ms. Simmons emphasized was the importance of independent problem-solving. After closing the presentation, more than thirty girls in the audience lined up next to the microphone to ask for advice and pose questions regarding their own friendship problems. Knowing that she would likely not have the time to give every question a truly in-depth answer, Ms. Simmons introduced a 4-step problem-solving strategy which emphasized analyzing and weighing choices in order to come up with a course of action that would have the best possible outcome.
While it is important for girls to know how and when to ask for help, the point Ms. Simmons really drove home during the course of the workshop was that the ability to act independently and solve her own problems was one of the most important skills for a girl to develop in order to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of friendships.