It's a girl thing

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Have you been spreading rumours about me? Why are you taking Chloe's side? Brenda Despontin reads about the complex workings of relationships between girls

Understanding Girls' Friendships, Fights and Feuds: a practical approach to girls' bullying

By Valerie Besag

Open University Press pound;19.99

Valerie Besag's claim that "Boys fight with their fists, girls with their tongues" will be familiar to all who work with teenage girls. Her book Understanding Girls' Friendships, Fights and Feuds draws on extensive research, and details her own ethnographic studies spanning 16 months and several continents. Attempting to explain why bullying should still be prevalent despite all the excellent initiatives of recent times, Besag cites many real-life, commonplace examples of teenage conflict, and highlights significant gender differences in the disputes of young people: boys, she says, practise skills and girls rehearse life.

It matters less what girls play than with whom, and often the closer the friends, then the more likely they are to quarrel. "Many girls pay a high cost for the intimacy of their friendships," she writes. "They offer a power base open to manipulation." Besag examines the "indirect aggression"

girls adopt so expertly. They use the powerful verbal weapons of rumour and gossip to produce results which can be longer-lasting and more devastating than any physical equivalent.

Girls she interviewed said it was more important to them to have friends than to achieve academically, but Besag finds the "club rules" permitting inclusion into friendship cliques to be very strict. Girls select on compatibility, preferring included peers to reflect themselves. Her observations conclude that young people of both genders find out who they are by making social comparisons of themselves with others. Female bullies, she found, often state it is their right to choose their own friends.

Her sociometric definitions are easy to recognise: we have all encountered the "triad of tension" in which three's a crowd and the "floaters" in any group of girls. Loyalty is valued disproportionately in many a teenage "dyad", and subsequent feelings of betrayal can produce devastating effects.

This is an extremely readable addition to any staffroom library, of interest and help to all involved in the pastoral care of girls, including their parents. The book's greatest strength lies in the extensive, often very imaginative suggestions for practical follow-up activities, listed at the conclusion of each chapter. Some of these ideas would provide excellent material for busy form tutors confronted with often baffling disputes in their tutor group, or for a PSHE programme where bullying, or the potentially destructive power of language were being explored.

The individual case studies are equally credible, and offer sound practical advice, with sensible techniques proposed to address long and short-term problems. Many activities are directed usefully at girls themselves, and the section on whole-school strategies would stimulate debate on staff Inset days.

A minor gripe is Besag's too frequent use of the odd term "disputatious", an irritating word used in every chapter. Better editing would have supplied alternatives. But in general, this is a book to meet the needs of a wide audience, one I shall be recommending to my own pastoral team, and to the sixth-form girls who have volunteered to be trained by the school counsellor as "buddies" to our Year 7s.

Brenda Despontin is president of the Girls' Schools Association and headmistress of Haberdashers' Monmouth school for girls

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