Sugar and Spice, but Not Always Nice: One Woman’s Quest to Put an End to Mean Girls

Mommy Warriors Interview with Dana Kerford –  Founder of GirlPower

We hear it over and over again.  Boys are so much easier to raise than girls.  Boys are basic.  Their needs are obvious.  Their school conflicts are usually resolved quickly.   Girls,  on the other hand,  are complicated.  They’re emotional and sensitive.  Their school conflicts can last weeks,  months,  years, and because these complicated beings are trying to have friendships with other complicated beings,  all hell often breaks loose.

Dana Kerford,  founder of GirlPower,  teacher and mother,  is making it her life’s mission to help girls around the world navigate the complicated world of girl relationships and girl bullying,  helping kids discover their true friendships.  After attending one of her workshop at my daughter’s school,  I invited her to share some of her insight with Mommy Warriors.

Dana Kerford, Founder of GirlPower

First,  tell us what is GirlPower?
GirlPower is a friendship program for tween girls.  I work with girls 6 to 12 years old,  teaching them what is normal in a friendship and how to stand up for themselves.  Girls are given tools,  language and strategies to develop healthy friendships and how to put out what I call “friendship fires.”  The idea is to work with girls in the preteen years because this is the time when they’re figuring out the world around them,  the formative years,  and developing morality.

Why did you start GirlPower?
As a classroom teacher I noticed that when my girls had any sort of issue with a friend it really consumed them.  They couldn’t think of anything else.  They couldn’t focus on studies.  They couldn’t write.  I started noticing myself dropping things to help these girls deal with their friendships.  I remember how painful and all consuming it was when I was their age.  I started searching for resources to help these girls,  but I couldn’t find anything.  So I decided to develop it myself.  I really wanted to create something that girls would connect with,  using their language.

How would you say girl-bullying is different from boy bullying?
Girls want to be liked and they seek harmony in their relationships. They’ve been socialized to be “sugar and spice and everything nice.”  They’re expected to be proper and kind,  but the reality is girls still have feelings of aggression,  frustration and anger.    So to put out these fires inside they find sneaky ways to do it.  For boys it is more socially acceptable to get aggression out.  Girls want to keep the facade of being sweet and kind and wonderful. So instead they find subtle sneaky ways.  Rolling eyes,  crossing arms,  alliance building.  They use exclusionary tactics.

Raising boy/girl twins I can tell you that from the time they were babies they navigated the world differently.  Do you see this?
Absolutely.  Our brains are just constructed differently,  for example,  girls develop linguistic centers sooner.  The bio chemistry is just different.  I see it in the classroom.  If a girls’ friend is hyped up on sugar, the girl will take personally.  We are so sensitive and it’s talked about as a bad quality.  I always tell my girls that the next time someone criticizes them for being “so sensitive” just say “thank you.”  It’s a good thing.  It means you’re compassionate and loving.

Did you draw on personal experiences as you put together your program?
Yes.  For sure!  I was a very sensitive and emotional young girl who was tuned in,  very tuned in,  to the eye rolling and note passing.  I was also very self conscious.  I assumed it was always about me.  I also went thru a phase starting in grade three,  where I really disliked the way I looked. I thought my eyebrows were ridiculous and that my arms had too much hair.  And this continued all thru school.  Then in junior high and high school I had situations where girls were mean to me on purpose.  I was the girl who would go home crying and wish I didn’t have to go back to school the next day.  But thankfully I had a great relationship with my mom.  She would always talk to me and hear me out.

Why do you think some girls are more susceptible to bullying?
That’s a good question. I was that girl.  The girls that are sensitive and emotional,  who are less likely to stand up for themselves because maybe they’re passive or shy,  those girls are easy targets.  And then I also think that girls who are pretty and smart and or who have what other girls would consider “it all going on,” those girls sometimes tend to have a target on their back, even if they’re the sweetest girls in the world.  The motivator is this case is jealousy.

It seems like the girls who get bullied are also sometimes more mature and unwilling to play along with the games.
I think I compare myself vs my best friend, Sophia, who I talk about in my workshops.  She was gorgeous,  did well in school, sports, but also had an edge.  You knew if you said anything mean she would stand up for herself.  Her back would get taller and she’d say something. I, on the other hand, would crumble and turn inward.  I would suffer silently.  I didn’t think I could stand up for myself.  Some girls are just better at having a back bone.

Do you think girls with brothers are bullied less. I notice that my friends with all girls seem to have more sensitive daughters.
That’s interesting.  I haven’t spent any time thinking of that,  but I know from personal experience,  there are so many things we can learn from boys.  Girls who are around boys learn some strategies that are effective.  Generally speaking, boys don’t keep it in.  They deal with it in the moment and they get it out.  That’s the end of it.  That’s what I’m trying to teach girls to do.  Confront the fire instead of keeping it in and finding sneaky ways to put it out.  I think in an environment of all girls they are more susceptible to indulging in the girl drama.  I think boys and men help balance that out.  They can show us a more practical approach to conflict.

What should parents look for as a sign that their daughter may be getting bullied at school?
Parents should look for any sort of change in behavior in terms of self esteem,  if she is not feeling as good about herself.  For example if she is saying things like,  “I’m bad at math,”  when before she thought she was,  if she not wanting to participate in activities that she once loved,  or if she isn’t as motivated to go to school.  Is she spending a lot of time in her room.  Are her grades dropping for no reason.  And pay very close attention to any strange behavior like pulling eyebrows out,  where there is self inflicted pain.

How should parents respond to their daughters if they are being bullied?
First parents need to empathize for sure!  Don’t tell your daughter to “just ignore it.”  Girls can’t do this,  so when you tell her to ignore things it just shuts her down.  It’s not helpful at all.  Empathize with her,  just like you would with a friend.

Role playing with her is also helpful.  It gives her a chance to get comfortable with the idea of standing up with herself.

You can also get your daughter totally immersed in things she loves, so as to keep the focus on her.  In a lot of situations girls’ parents will get so obsessed with the other girls and the bulling that they forget to focus on their daughter.

It’s also important to meet with the teacher, but make sure your daughter is involved, unless, of course, there are things that need to be discussed without her.  Put together a game plan for how the teacher can help your daughter in the classroom. Work as a team – you, your daughter, and her teacher.

Mostly,  parents need to be her #1 friend.  Remind her that she is amazing,  beautiful,  strong.  She can do this!  Be her support.

What should parents expect schools to do?
The tricky thing with relational aggression is that it usually doesn’t happen in front of the teacher.  It happens at the back of bus, on the playground, in the bathroom.  Some teachers think that if they don’t witness the aggression they can’t accuse the child,  so that makes it difficult for parents.  And some girls are just so darn good at being sneaky.

Having been a teacher I can tell you that teachers absolutely love their students.  They would do anything to help their students out.  They also have a great way of seeing a situation objectively.  Parents are naturally subjective in how they view the situation.  I cannot imagine a teacher would not want to have a meeting,  be part of a conversation and work together on a plan to help any student.  But to expect a teacher to be tuned in and see the all of the behavior is unrealistic.  And male teachers have a tendency to see even less.

So parents shouldn’t expect teachers to discipline for subtle behaviors?
Teachers should give consequences for relational aggression,  if they see it, but it’s unfair for parents to expect teachers to notice these things.  To a parent these things may seem obvious,  but if it’s happening when the teachers’ backs are turned,  it’s hard.  I think it’s okay for parents to make a meeting with the teacher and ask them to pay more attention. Reach out and ask them to be part of a team to put an end of it. The reality is,  both girls need help –  the girl who is being ‘mean’ and the girl who is the target. I once had a 5th grade girl who was always staring at another girl during a class.  I sent her out of the class and called her parents.  I have a no tolerance rule for that because it was an intimidation tactic and was mean on purpose. I helped her learn more appropriate ways to deal with her aggression and helped the other girl learn to stand up for herself.

Is there a pattern in the types of families that mean girls come from?
That’s a great question.  I have worked with everything from low income to affluent families.  I see absolutely no difference.  At the end of the day regardless of socioeconomic, religious, cultural backgrounds,  all little girls are the same. They just want to get along and be liked.

What can parents do to help prevent their daughters from being mean girls?
The biggest thing is for moms to be modeling appropriate behavior.  As soon as girls see their moms whispering or gossiping about a friend or rolling their eyes,  girls think it’s okay.  So it’s important for moms to manage their “Friendship Fires” the way they’d want their daughters to.

Does your program also include lessons on how to be good friends or is it more geared toward dealing with bad friends?
We talk a lot about being a healthy friend.  We do an activity called “what makes a great friend” in our workshops.  We talk about not only surrounding yourself with friends who have your “must haves” qualities, but also about being that kind of friend.  I try to get girls to see from two perspectives, helping them develop both social awareness and self awareness.   The first session in my 6 wk program is “The True You.”  What makes you special and unique.  What are your good and bad qualities.  Look at those qualities and identify which you can control and which you can’t control. Girls realize they can control their character and learn to love the things they cannot control,  because that’s what makes them stand out from the rest.

You’ve probably seen and heard some pretty heart wrenching stories.  Does one stick out for you that drives you?
I have heard a ton of stories.  The one that sticks out was this little girl in a small town in Minnesota.  She ended up in emergency room 2 times in one month because of her best friends,  people I would call a “frienemies.”  She was being made to feel so insignificant that she stopped eating,  was throwing up and got very sick.  Girls who have anxiety,  they really suffer.  I tell girls to be careful of a “BFF.”  That ‘forever’ word makes girls feel like they’re stuck with them and can’t get out,  like a marriage.  I try to teach girls that just because someone was your best friend last year,  doesn’t mean they will be this year.  Girls have to earn that title.

Are there girls who are mean and don’t even realize it?
For sure.  It happens a ton with little girls.  In our workshops we talk about the idea of intent.  Some girls just don’t have the self awareness to recognize that their behavior can be viewed as mean.  We can teach that.  It’s why it’s important to tune them into these things so they can develop empathy.

How can parents or schools set up a GirlPower workshop?
You can drop me an email.  Let me know when and we’ll coordinate something.  I’m based in Calgary,  but I have facilitators in the US.  I do a lot a lot traveling to speak at schools and conferences.

What is a facilitator?
Facilitators are people out there in the community offering GirlPower workshops to schools and parents.  It’s similar to a franchise.  It’s a license agreement,  but they operate their own GirlPower gig within their community.

If someone is interested in becoming a facilitator, what should they do?
I am actually going to be calling for applications for the next round of training very soon.  If anyone is interested in becoming a licensed facilitator they can email me. We look for women with a background in education/psychology, experience working with girls,  and a business sense. Candidates will be shortlisted in February and training will likely be at the beginning of March, 2013.

What’s next for GirlPower?
Oh my gosh!  So many things!  My book is coming out.  We have a new website that is being developed.  Training more facilitators.  My dream board is full of so many things.  I’d love to do a TV program.  I also want to expand and offer workshops for 13 to 15 year old girls for their relationships with boys.

How can parents learn more?
Parents can visit our website,  Facebook,  too.  That’s where I share articles,  resources,  inspirational quotes.  People can email me,  too,  at

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One Comment

  1. Alyssa says:

    What a wonderful program, I wish my daughter could have reaped the benefits of GirlPower when she was a tween. Glad to see that you recommend role playing. I often do some role playing with my daughter since she is often too shy to say anything. It gives her a little ammunition to give it back with confidence and stand up for herself.

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