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"In third grade, I changed schools. My new friend Betsy was instructed by her best friend Susie not to play with me. The next day, there was no room for me at the lunch table. So eventually I made some other friends. A few months later Susie became my best friend. In fourth grade, Susie dropped me and I became best friends with Betsy. It kept on switching until we all went to new schools."
— 14-year-old girl
The social and power struggles that began in preschool get more dramatic, more important and more complicated as girls go into elementary school. Now girls are moving away from their parents and creating independent relationships on their own.
Here's how one ten-year-old describes the process: "A best friend is like you love her; she's like your sister or something. I think the difference between best friends and friends is that with best friends you hold their hands, you laugh a lot, and you feel more close than just friends. You always invite her first. You feel like she's part of your heart."
Girl friendships are spectacular and all-encompassing.
Overall, friendships for girls in elementary school can be deeply fulfilling. "At their best, girl friends are trusting, loving and supportive at this age," says Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, co-author of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership. "In these instances, parents can butt out -- just be there to help your daughter make play dates and get to them."
The nature of girls' play evolves in elementary school.
Girls between the ages of seven and ten can play together for hours. They love to engage in fantasy play with dolls, puppets, and other objects that they turn into whatever they want them to be. They are also taking on physical activities like soccer and gymnastics, and they are forming friendships based on what they love to do.
Sexual development is happening younger and younger.
Girls in the upper years of elementary school are too young to deal with sexual pressure, but many of them are faced with it, and then often pressure others to compete. "During these fourth- to fifth-grade years, girls may appear older than they are emotionally," says psychotherapist Meg White, M.A.. "The challenge is to allow them to remain the 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds that they are inside."
Some girls at this age start competing and rejecting.
The struggle over who is best friends with whom begins during elementary school and never really ends. By the time girls are in third or fourth grade, "constant conversation about other kids (otherwise known as gossip) becomes the glue of many friendships and can become a real problem. Girls know that they are being talked about by other girls and it worries them," says Michael Thompson, "but it can become a real problem when it gets mean. At this age, girls also can get competitive about sports, academics, and popularity."
The media can influence how girls relate to their friends.
Lyn Mikel Brown notes that the media play a big role in influencing girls' actions at this age. According to Brown, behavior that we label "gossipy" can in part be considered learned behavior, from TV and movies that celebrate stereotypical girl relationships. "Parental influence plays an important role in girls' socialization; and cultural norms, values, and even interaction styles differ along race and class lines," states Brown. "At the same time, media have a big impact on girls' relationships, selling them messages about how girls are supposed to look and behave. (To learn more about girls and media, read The Girl Net). A recent study finds that female aggression on TV is now so common it has reached the status of a female character trait, and that girls watching are socialized into relational aggression."