Mothers Teach Daughters How To Relate To Other Women

This week's parenting roundtable explores how mothers influence their daughters' relationships with other women. This is the central theme of Kelly Valen's new book, The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships. Host Michel Martin speaks with Valen about her survey of 3,000 women across the U.S. The results suggest most women regard a mother's influence as key in determining whether daughters will be aggressive, manipulative or exclusive with their peers. Also joining the conversation are regular parenting contributors Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

This week we decided to take a look at the bonds between the girls and the roles that mothers can play in helping their daughters keep those relationships healthy. That sense of sisterhood for many girls creates some of the happiest memories that can last a lifetime, but for others it creates painful memories that can also last well through the years. That's something that author Kelly Valen picked up on. She wrote a book called "The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships."

That book builds on a provocative piece she wrote for The New York Times Modern Love feature in December 2007 that provoked a strong reader reaction. She's with us now from member station WBUR in Boston. Also with us, our regular parenting contributors Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker, here in Washington. Welcome to you all. Thank you all for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Kelly, I just want to go back to that piece in The Times, because even people who've not, you know, read your book, but many people will have seen that piece in The Times where you recount a very painful episode from your college years that you thought you'd put behind you and it came kind of roaring back when you were an adult.

KELLY VALEN, Host:

Yeah. Precisely. I ran into the proverbial ghost from my past and it drummed up all sorts of memories about a pretty painful experience I'd had in college that had left me with these sort of lingering issues of distrust and wariness with my fellow women.

You know, I take full responsibility, was drinking too much one evening at a fraternity house and there was a date rape involved. And as bad as that was, ultimately, my sorority sisters not only failed to support me in it but blamed me for it and sort of gave me the slow torture and ultimately kicked me out of the house. But I pulled myself up and went on to professional and personal success in many ways. And now, having talked to over 3,000 women it's amazing how these things really can stick with you in ways you don't really recognize in how you view and relate to women.

MARTIN: Well, you write about this very vividly. You write about the horrible way you were ostracized. Not only were you not supported, you were treated like a pariah, was shocking to me. And Leslie, what about you?

MORGAN STEINER: I found Kelly's New York Times piece riveting. I felt fortunate, reading Kelly's piece, that I did not have the same experience. I think largely because of my mother I learned pretty early on, one, how to be truly a good friend to other girls and also to steer clear of the girls who were not friends to me.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you, before we go back to Kelly's story, were you shocked by her story, finding out that, you know, women had so profoundly undermined her and had been so awful to her at a time when she really could have really counted on them?

TUCKER: You know, I mean, I believe women can be some of the vicious creatures walking the face of the earth. But I love what Kelly did because it brought it to light to me for a lot of the young women, you know, it might help them get through it because a lot of them are still hurting by it.

MARTIN: Well, I want to get to the point you just made. You're saying this is nothing new. Kelly, I'm interested in your perspective on this because you wrote the piece for The Times and got some very strong reaction, as we've said, and then you kind of put it aside for a while. But then you decided that you wanted to dig deeper into it because you really felt that there were some profound consequences to some of the destructive relationships that women can have with each other.

So you went out and published a survey. It's not a scientific survey because it's not random, but you distributed it in lots of different settings and got a lot of feedback from women about their experiences and sort of through that did a lot of interviews.

So the first question I have for you is, is this something new?

VALEN: Do I think it's new?

MARTIN: Yeah.

VALEN: Absolutely not. I think when we were back in the caves there was this type of thing going on. But the support sabotage conundrum has always been there with women. You know, on the one hand, we are so good for one another when things are healthy and positive. On the other hand it can be, as one woman put it, men may hurt my body but women scour my soul.

It mostly relates back to our insecurities and most people would agree to that. Generally speaking, girls and women, we have a different, a very close way of relating. We mean a lot to each other. We share a lot. We talk, talk, talk and all of that can be wonderful but it does set things up for a great fall when things do go awry.

MARTIN: Leslie has a story about this involving your own daughter.

MORGAN STEINER: Oh, yes. One of the quotes in the "Twisted Sisterhood" that I loved was that the - and I'm paraphrasing here - the nastiest girls usually have the nastiest mothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORGAN STEINER: And I don't think that moms are trying to teach their daughters to be cruel, but I think by example they do and sometimes they let their daughters be mean. And in my case, I have a 12-year-old daughter and a couple of years ago one of her best friend planned a sleepover. My daughter was involved in the planning and then she found out that she wasn't invited to the sleepover. And my daughter cried for two hours. I mean, it was traumatic.

My daughter was pretty resilient and dealt with it and dealt with it head-on. But I couldn't believe - I could believe that the girl did it because I was mean in fourth and fifth grade too. I had to be taught not to be mean by my mother. But I was really surprised by the girl's mother, who also was a very good friend of mine, that she didn't stop her from doing it.

MARTIN: Why do you think she didn't?

MORGAN STEINER: We had a long conversation about it and she said that it just hadn't occurred to her that it was going to hurt my daughter's feelings so much. And I remember almost the same thing happening to me at almost the same age. There was a girl in my elementary school and I was friends with her but I decided I didn't want to invite her to my birthday party. And she was going to be the only girl in the class who I didn't invite. And my mother said you have a choice, you either invite her or you don't have a birthday party.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MORGAN STEINER: And I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I had not invited that girl. I mean, it was just so mean spirited of me.

MARTIN: Why do you think you did that?

MORGAN STEINER: Yeah, I was mad at her. I was just in a tiff. We were good friends and we were fighting over, you know, another friend and I wanted to be mean. You know, I did other mean things, too. I remember once, my mom was the president of the PTA and she came home one night very upset because somebody had stolen Mercedes de la Cruz's ballet slippers. And she walked into our house and I was on the couch watching TV with the ballet slippers on my feet. I had stolen them.

And my mother turned ashen. I mean, I've never seen her so disappointed in her life. And she basically grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said that's her most prized possession. Her mother is a maid, you know, at a fancy house and she is distraught. And my mom made me call her right then and I had to take the shoes back that night to her house. And I wasn't a bad kid but my mom had to take me by the scruff of the neck and teach me to be nice.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly Moms conversation. We're talking about the roles that mothers can play in helping their daughters maintain healthy friendships with other girls.

Our guests are Kelly Valen. She's the author of "The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships." You might remember, she also wrote an attention-getting piece for the Modern Love feature in The New York Times where she talked about an incident from her early adulthood. Also with us, our regular contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker.

Dani, what do you think about this? I mean, has this ever happened to your daughter, this kind of exclusion business? What do you think it's about?

TUCKER: I'm with Kelly and with Leslie. Not just insecurities but also, to me, I think it has to do too with our inability to understand what love really is, especially with women because we're always looking for love in the wrong places and we're always looking for that love, satisfaction from the wrong people.

And I've had that situation with my daughter with her friends because, you know, there are two of them that are more developed than the other ones and insecurities that have come with it. And what we do in our group with the daughters is they've been friends since elementary school and we promote that because I'm the one that Kelly's talking about who's had the friends for 30- something years, that we go back to seventh grade, and we do a lot of what Leslie's moms did.

When they get to going at each other we correct that amongst the whole group. If you can't do right by each other you're going to have to answer to one of us because this is not the way you do it. You have to teach them young not to give in to their insecurities, not to be, you know, why did you hurt her, or why did you say those things to her when you know they would hurt her? You know, you have to teach them real young.

MARTIN: With the time we have left I'd like to wheel around toward Leslie. You got us started on this path of what we can do about this if we feel, we've observed that this is a problem, this is something we want to fix. I'm interested in perspectives on what we can do. Now, Leslie, you started us off by talking about the role that mothers can play in not allowing their daughters to behave in this way. What can we do about this?

MORGAN STEINER: I think one thing that is really important is to recognize that human beings in general are competitive and that some of us are really mean and some of us like me can be mean at different times in our lives. And I think it's too Pollyanna-ish to say, you know, this is something that can be eradicated. It can't.

So with that premise, what I try to teach my daughter and what I've done in my life - and it felt like it's been really successful, because I have lifelong female friends - I don't stereotype women and I give everybody a chance, maybe even a couple of chances. I'm really open. But if they hurt me, I am pretty quick to cut them off forever.

MARTIN: backstabbing or bad-mouthing any woman, flirting when you shouldn't be flirting with somebody's man, ostracizing or undermining anybody who is weak in a group, particularly children, which is what happened to my daughter, and then anything self-destructive, too. When I see some woman who is in a really bad place and is really hurting herself over and over again, I steer clear. So that has helped me because I want to avoid the problem part of our population and I try to teach my daughters to do the same thing.

And after that incident with the sleepover, I said to my daughter again and again, I said I'm sorry you're learning this lesson. It's a harsh lesson to learn at this age. But you would have to learn it eventually. You're going to face it your whole life. And what you need to look for is those girls who you never see do anything mean to anybody. Look for them and you will find them and then when you're my age, 45, you'll have a collection of 10 great girlfriends, which is what I have, people who I've never seen do a cruel thing ever.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you think?

TUCKER: I like what Leslie said but I want to add to it. I think what we don't do enough of, and this is one thing I'm working on with my daughter and her friends, self-accountability and self-healing. Start teaching them young to learn what the difference is between, you know, what is inside of you and what you're feeling and what was actually caused by something that somebody did.

MARTIN: And we're not equating mean with tough are we?

TUCKER: No, no, no, no.

MARTIN: Because I think of both of you as being tough but not mean.

TUCKER: Right. To me, there's being tough knowing, you know, not to let a man take advantage of you or those certain things, but mean meaning you're just being nasty because you're hurting inside and you're bitter about something that this person didn't do to you. But for whatever the case may be, you've got to learn within yourself to heal in certain areas and I don't think we do that enough.

MARTIN: Do you encourage your daughter to stand up to someone who - or to confront someone who has hurt her in a way, even if we as adults find it trivial, like not being invited to something? Or do you, what do you encourage her to do in that situation?

TUCKER: First thing I encourage her to do again is to self-assess. Are you upset because you weren't invited? Did you really want to go to this party? After you finish having that mirror check then you go forth and take that to the next person, because if you don't look at yourself first you're not going to clean nothing up.

MARTIN: Kelly, what about you? What do you recommend here?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VALEN: Well, those are all great points, first of all. I mean, generally speaking, a lot of this is pretty basic. On the one hand, it's pausing, thinking twice and it's behaving yourself and maybe even donning the muzzle half of the time. But, specifically with respect to our kids, you know, if you're a mom you need to role model and show them what kindness and empathy and inclusion. I'm so glad Leslie brought up that story because this exclusivity is really a problem, you know, for younger kids. It is very hurtful and it's what drives a lot of this.

You know, you need to show up and pay attention to what you girls are doing, you know, what they're texting, what they're doing on Facebook and who they're inviting to certain things and purposely excluding and all those little games that we know and little shenanigans.

And then finally, again, you know, we've got to grow. I think, there's a tall order in my book. I talk about a lot of different issues but if there's one major contribution I could make here is that we need to help grow confident girls who are independent-minded and who have, again, you know, these multiple narratives of success, so that when they're rejected on one front they don't feel that they're worthless and they're losers and that they're the odd girl out. They need to know that they are valuable and worthy and so forth.

MARTIN: Kelly Valen is the author of "The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships." She joined us from member station WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts. Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, our regulars, Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Leslie is the author most recently of "Crazy Love: A Memoir," and they're here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you all so much for joining us.

VALEN: Thank you so much.

MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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