In 2009, college pals Molly Thompson, 23, and Lauren Parsekian, 24, spent six weeks interviewing girls across the country for their documentary, Finding Kind. The founders of the Kind Campaign, a movement that aims to end girl-against-girl bullying, directed the movie to show that by making a conscious effort to be nice to others, teens can end bullying and even reverse its effects. FC learns more from Lauren and Molly.
FC: Why did you decide to make Finding Kind?
LP: The film concept originated from a personal experience I had in middle school. I grew up in Orange County, California, and I had a traumatic experience with girls through the 7th and 8th grade. I had severe depression, which escalated into an eating disorder and I tried to take my own life. The effect it had on me put this issue in my heart and I wanted to find a way to combat bullying. I was a film student at Pepperdine and interning for Tom Shadyac, the director of the documentary I Am. It opened my eyes to the world of documentary filmmaking, and I knew that was the way I wanted to tell that story. We started the Kind Campaign and its national school program because of how vulnerable girls can be.
MT: I grew up in Dallas, and my junior year of high school I was friends with a group of girls, but they didn't want me to be a part of the group anymore, so they did everything they could to ostracize me. I would hide in the bathroom because I was afraid what these girls would do or think if I was walking in the hallways myself. At the end of the year, one of the girls who was mean to me called out my name and said she was sorry for everything she had done, and for me that was huge. Her apology meant so much and shows how powerful an apology can be. Because of the emotions I felt I immediately connected with this issue and knew I could relate to these girls. When we go in and tell our story, we're young enough that they can relate to us. We're not preaching to them. We've all said and done things that have hurt another person and together we can create change.
FC: What do you do during school visits?
MT: We go into elementary, middle and high schools, and we offer a variation depending on the grade level. It's usually all girls, but sometimes we do screenings of the film for both girls and boys to shed light on the topic, so that boys see what girls go through and the influence they have on girls' experiences. We share our testimonies and do Kind Campaign activities, like a Kind Card. Girls hand out a card that says something kind about another girl—not just about their best friends—but a girl they see in the hallways, and it brightens their day. It's cool to see them go outside their social circle. Our favorite interaction is the Kind Apology: girls stand up in the middle of the assembly and hand their apology to another girl, and it often ends in tears.
FC: What is your favorite scene from the documentary?
LP: My favorite scene is at the end of the film. We were focusing on being the aggressor or the victim, but leaving out this midsection, which is being a bystander. I went to high school with Amanda and she was that girl who never got a break—girls and boys were so mean to her. I had a computer class with her and I would sit next to her and talk to her because I felt bad but I never took it outside the classroom because it wasn't the cool thing to do. At 23, she is still affected by the things that went on in high school. She said, "I wish someone had just looked at me and said you're okay and I like you, because no one was ever going to." I wasn't mean to her, but I was still a part of her negative experience because I never stood up for her. It really opened up a dialogue for us. There are hundreds of girls like her. We understand students' social pressures and how hard it is to stick up for people, but I tell them how much I wish I could go back in time and stand up for Amanda. There's something really powerful I learned about that lesson.
MT: In the beginning of the film there's a scene where a woman named Laurie, from Walla Walla, Washington, shared her experience in high school. She was bullied a lot and had a difficult home life. It was intense and tragic, especially when she said she wishes she could have had a friend to be there for her like she was for girls in her life. Laurie got pregnant in high school because she was looking for love. Her testimony showed us how every single person has a story and we don't know what people are going through.
FC: What's the most surprising thing you've learned from working with teens?
LP: We go into so many communities and part of the fun is being able to meet different people across the country and bring our message to them. I went into tackling this with my own stereotypes, like girls and women are like this and we can't change. After hearing all these people's stories, what really stood out to me was the word "insecure." It's so alarming and saddening to see how insecure girls are. Obviously girls aren't born that way, so it became more important to us then to create an outlet to embrace who they are. It's really hard to have healthy relationships with other girls when you're not comfortable with yourself.
MT: Something we walked away with—and the reason why we continue to do this—is the reaction in the assembly. The hope that we see within the girls and the women that we talk to, and the desire and longing to make change keeps us doing what we're doing. It really does teach them about being conscious of the things we say and do, thinking about what we say before we say it. Girls want to change and there is hope. Girls are willing to stand up to their peers and make apologies and pledge to make a change, or talk to a girl they may have never talked to before. It is really exciting and that's what we love about it—being change makers in schools across America.
LP: Something that was really surprising, especially on the first road trip when this wasn't a hot topic, is how confused schools are about handling this issue. Parents said I've sat down with the administrator and tried to work this out, but there just aren't resources and a plan. We saw so many parents who were frustrated. When I was going through this in middle school, my mom was affected too. When we interviewed her, she said, a parent is only as happy as their least happy child. There are lot of initiatives that are starting now, and it was cool to be at the forefront of that. We learn all these things in school—we have English and math class, but there isn't a class to teach kids how to be decent human beings, to work together and to coexist. Now that schools and media are talking about it, you're seeing schools implement that more; it's been good to see change made over the last two years.
FC: Do you think the "mean girls" phenomenon is universal?
LP: Definitely. The first thing we ask students is to raise their hands if they've ever been negatively affected by something a girl has said to them, and all the hands go up. It doesn't matter if you're from the inner city or a suburb, it's the same social dynamic that's happening. What girls are fighting about can vary, but the emotions are universal.
MT: We were in Nebraska and stopped to get a bite to eat and saw these girls going down the street. We started talking to them, and one of them stuck out to Lauren and me. They were letting us know she lived in the outskirts of town, and the girl who lived in town was bullied because she didn't know how to do certain things the other girl knew because she lived on a farm. The emotions they had were the same exact feelings girls we talked to in California had about not having the right purse or shoes, but these girls were dealing with roping cattle. That experience has really stood out to us because if you don't know how to rope a cattle or have the right shoes, it's the same across the board.
FC: What can parents do to influence their daughters to be kind?
LP: Unfortunately we've seen a lot of parents get involved in their kids' drama and get on Facebook and write mean things to younger girls, though this isn't the case for everyone. We've seen so many examples of cattiness among women in work force communities; it shows this isn't age specific. We open dialogue to women saying you have no idea what goes on. We want to influence daughters by being good examples and having healthy relationships with other women. Jessica Weiner, a teen self-esteem expert whom we interview in the movie, says women are girls in grown-up bodies, and women have all the prerequisite girl issues well into adulthood.
MT: A specific way they can influence their daughters is to be available to their kids and let their kids know they can come talk to them. Sometimes they don't always feel comfortable talking to parents. If your daughter doesn't feel comfortable, use the Kind Campaign to start a dialogue. It can be a great conversation starter—show them the truth wall or different interactive features.
FC: What is your ultimate goal for the Kind Campaign?
LP: We're coining the last week of September Kind Week. The film will be in theaters then and screening in schools around the country. We're going to go back on the road the month of October for National Anti-Bullying Month. It will be our last tour around the country, but we don't see this ending after October. I see this film as something that will be shown in schools for years and years to come—we've created a high production value movie with an important message and we're really excited about that and plan to continue speaking. We're also collaborating with Jess Weiner to create a packet for schools about the topic.
FC: Why did you collaborate with Mattel's Monster High?
MT: They actually heard about us when we were on air with Ryan Seacrest. This year we'll be able to share our message with Monster High fans through special programs and content. Lauren and I will star in a webisode as animated monsterfied characters who visit Monster High to host a Kind assembly for Frankie Stein, Draculaura, Cleo de Nile and the rest of the Monster High students. Monster High has such a large reach—70 million views by girls across the world—so we're really excited to go into their world.
LP: Our partnership with Monster High is important because they embrace imperfections and show how hard that is for girls to do and how it's related to the way girls treat each other.
FC: What's the main message you want to get across to students?
LP: We know what girls are going through because we were sitting in their chairs not so long ago. It was really hard for me to see outside of the school halls. They have to understand they're going to have so many chapters of their life. This isn't their entire world, and it will make them stronger later; they will make awesome friendships.
Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.