Who's in the In Crowd?
While cliques can provide social acceptance for some children, they can cause others to feel cast out and unpopular. The problem heats up around third grade when boys and girls start forming gender-specific social groups and the stakes to fit in become higher, says Adler. For instance, while conducting a 10-year study among third- through sixth-grade students in Boulder, Colorado, Adler found that children needed some kind of "social capital" to gain entry into the cool clique. For girls, that capital could include being pretty or wearing nice clothes; for boys, toughness and athletic ability might be the currency. (Incidentally, boys who did well in school were not considered cool.)
While being ostracized is no fun, getting into a clique doesn't guarantee a trouble-free social life -- being a member can also have a downside. For one thing, each clique generally has one or two leaders and a core group of members who not only set standards for inclusion, but also set consequences for members who behave in a way that the other members don't like. In other words, if a clique member says something "dumb," hangs out with someone who isn't cool, or is treated as the teacher's pet, he or she could be kicked out of the group -- at least temporarily, says Adler.
Cliques can be extremely volatile, particularly among girls, who tend to be more exclusive than boys, adds Diane Ross Glazer, PhD, a child therapist in Santa Monica, California. And even though children in cliques may be friends for years, their relationships can often be capricious and problematic.