A young woman sat in her therapist's office earlier this week seeking ways to navigate her way through another harrowing day in the life of a teenager. She said it was easy to get people here to be nice to you—all it required was wearing the right clothes and being seen with the right people. In her words, that meant not dressing too "slutty" and not hanging with the "druggies."
A grown woman, who grew up in the Wood River Valley—and was teased relentlessly for "anything about me I couldn't change, like getting boobs in the third grade"—related how painful it is to hear her own daughter's trials with the children of her playground tormentors. She wonders when her child will have things as seemingly dialed in as the teen, and when she will find her place where people are nice to you.
"It's heartbreaking because you want to take all the things you've learned and give those tools to her so she doesn't have to suffer the way you did, but she's 8 years old and she can't understand," said the mother, whose identity is being protected to allow her story to be told without repercussions. "My daughter is following in my footsteps, and she is a little bit shy. Being just a little different puts a target on her back."
Tami Kammer, a certified marriage and family therapist, often gets referrals from the Blaine County School District to intervene. In her 10 years as a local, it is not the caliber of meanness that has changed, she said, but the early onset of conflict and self-esteem issues that is most alarming.
"Girls do the emotional abuse more often than the physical. Boys tend to have an issue and resolve it by beating it out on each other, where the girls use the emotional cruelty," Kammer said. "When I was in California, it was the fourth and fifth grade where girls were getting catty, but now it's first and second grade."
"They change," explained the pre-adolescent girl about how bewildering and unpredictable the assignations can be.
"Some days they are fine and some days they are mean."
"Some days they will be friends," her mother added. "And she will come home happy and thinking she's made some progress and the next day it's over. Wait until the hormones! She's losing confidence, quickly, but she is getting tougher. She's looking for her place."
Adding another layer to the imbalance of compassion is the number of children with depression and other mood disorders, Kammer explained.
"That's a whole other story," she said, adding that boys, too, can be emotionally cruel. "But it's not all physiological. The world is changing so quickly and the pace of life is so much faster. The stress on everyone is increased. We haven't caught up with the coping skills needed to keep up."
The mom said she can remember learning that girls were a threat in her own home. She was raised by a fiercely competitive mother who made it clear that her daughter was to be the best. It was the same message many of her peers were receiving leaving little room to share the spotlight.
"As long as I can remember, girls of my generation were taught to look at one another as competition," she said. "I am really trying with my daughter. She is already far kinder than I ever was, and that makes her vulnerable, but I haven't given up hope."
What encourages her is some of her past experiences that helped her cope.
"When I spent a summer at Camp Perkins years ago, it was a safe zone [without cliques] and when we left we were all one big happy bunch," she said.
She applies the same at her church school and gets results.
"I make them toe the line as far as kindness. As soon as I show them I won't put up with anything less and that there are no gender divisions, after a while, it fades away."
Kammer said the people in the valley can help limit bullying.
"We are pretty lucky in this community because we have a lot of compassionate and caring people in the schools working to make a difference," she said.
Such generational cycles like that being experienced by mother and daughter exist in large part because of a lack of understanding about what abusive language and behaviors are.
"It's not always some kid hitting another upside the head and demanding their lunch money," Kammer said. "We need to have conversations at home about the power of rumors and how and why we choose the friends we do."
And like the young woman who told Kammer she sidled up to the "in" crowd to make life easier, she challenges girls to examine why they follow the crowd rather than strive for individuality. "Are we choosing those friends because of a character strength, or merely for popularity? We try and help them understand what is motivating them and also to be prepared for rejection."
The whys of the nature of today's girls is still being researched by scientists, but action can't wait for all answers, Kammer cautioned.
"It doesn't really help to place blame. Once we start pointing fingers, we are not getting the job done. We need to identify what is going on and start filling the gaps. As a whole, in this community, we do a pretty good job. Could we be doing a better job? Absolutely. We can always be doing a better job or we wouldn't be talking."
For the one valley mom, the least she feels she can do is to fill those gaps and to ingrain in her daughter, "that home is where the truth is. That at home she is lovely and important and that school is just one of those things marking time until your real life begins. I have done that literally out of having no other way to help her."
In "Finding Kind,' filmmakers Lauren Parsekian and Molly Thompson, who met while in school at Pepperdine University in California, set out on a cross-country journey of discovery and education. Interviewing women and girls along the way about their lives and experiences, Parsekian and Thompson find, among all of the unique personal stories, some universal truths about growing up as girls. The film will be shown tonight, Dec. 2, at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey at 6:30 p.m. Students with I.D. get in free. All others will be admitted for $3. For more on the film and the kind movement that it spawned, visit findingkind.com.