Raising three teenage daughters is no picnic, but has, on occasion, been a feast of opportunities to grow, stretch and parent much differently than we planned.

When our girls were young, school was a breeze and they had few academic challenges. So my husband and I often spent parent-teacher conferences asking about their social skills.

“Is she nice to other kids in your class?”

“Are there opportunities for her to help other students?”

“Is there a child we can encourage our daughter to befriend?”

One day, a first-grade teacher answered much differently than we expected. She described our daughter as a bully, and we were shocked. Apparently because she and another little girl both owned an identical shirt, they started planning which days to match and formed a rudimentary clique.

On the days they dressed the same, they wanted to stand in line together, eat lunch together and not play with anyone else. The teacher said their behavior was having an adverse effect on her classroom and so we took the opportunity to teach on the topic.

However, it wasn’t the last time we were told our daughters were mean girls. Sometimes it was hard to curb, like the day a neighbor complained that our daughter reprimanded her daughter for wearing a tank top and being immodest. Or another mom who sent me a scathing email because our daughters chastised her daughter for missing church to go skiing.

Again, more opportunities to teach about kindness, charity and sharing gospel principles with love.

But as teenagers, now the stakes are much higher and it’s important for them to be strong without degrading others, firm in their standards without judging too harshly and, on occasion, to be mean in order to halt rumors and gossip.

Unfortunately, opportunities for teen confrontation have risen exponentially because cat fights don’t end once the school bell rings. They are carried home through personal phones, texts and Facebook dialogue. Even innocent comments can be construed to be mean when they are posted rather than spoken. Sarcasm, dry humor and teasing don’t translate through the screen and sometimes teens learn that lesson the hard way.

I know times have changed since I was in Young Women toting a white Personal Progress book featuring an angelic girl with flowing hair and endless optimism. We Mormon girls were taught to be nice, develop talents and deepen our testimony. Now, I appreciate the evolution of the program that unequivocally focuses on the critical importance of virtue, integrity and obedience, among other great character traits.

When occasions call for them to be firm and direct when standing strong, I don’t despair that I’ve raised "mean" girls. Instead, I hope they follow Nephi’s example in the Book of Mormon.

As a teenager, Nephi was obedient to his father and God’s will, not because he was weakly subservient but because he fought the battle of wills within himself and chose humility. He said he could have followed his older brothers’ examples and rebelled against his father and his teachings, but he courageously acted another way when confused about the mysteries of God. He prayed, he cried and he allowed his heart to be softened. But it doesn’t mean he became a wimp.

He stood up to family members when they were whining. He impersonated Laban with such power and confidence that Zoram accepted the invitation to leave his life in the city to follow this stranger into the wilderness. Nephi was an instrument in the hands of the Lord to accomplish great purposes because he was boldly mean when not tolerating others' behavior that was sinful, mediocre or a negative influence on the innocent. I imagine that he was also hard to live with on occasion, but aren’t we all?

My husband and I struggle to strike a balance with our three oldest daughters when defining boundaries of respect, tolerance and forgiveness. All three are uniquely vocal, opinionated and fiercely competitive by nature, so we direct that passion through sports and self-improvement activities like piano lessons.

They have high expectations of themselves as well as others. We listen with empathy when they complain about unprepared Sunday School teachers or less impressive school teachers and then try to offer another perspective. We also facilitate opportunities for volunteerism, blistering hard work and developing leadership skills which helps limit frivolous time spent online in useless dialogue that often turns mean.

We want our daughters to be kind souls who don’t waver, but that doesn’t happen overnight. We believe each will stay on the right path in life if it’s her choice, made like Nephi after the long process of overcoming internal conflicts, finding personal answers to God’s mysteries and maintaining a softened heart.

In the meantime, we’ll love our girls even when they’re mean, we’ll shower them with compliments when they are kind and we’ll keep Nephi as our family’s mascot of the tough kid who turned out right.

Stacie Lloyd Duce is a columnist and magazine editor featured regularly in several Montana and Utah publications. Her columns appear Thursdays on www.desnews.com.