Has your 8-year-old daughter come home from school complaining that she's not allowed to sit with the cool kids at lunch? Does your 9-year-old son hang out with a group of boys who seem to exclude others? Your child may be the target of, or a member of, a clique -- an exclusive group of children who often use their status, power, and popularity to manipulate or ostracize others.
While most of us think of cliques as being a middle school or high school phenomenon, social groups are now forming as early as first or second grade. And by third grade, they can become quite exclusionary, says Peter Adler, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Denver and coauthor of Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity (Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Why are cliques forming so early? One reason may be that children are spending more time with their peers at a younger age (starting in day care or preschool). By the time they hit grade school, they've already discovered the benefits of group behavior, says Adler. They've found that having a tight-knit circle of friends can provide them with a sense of belonging, self-esteem, prestige, status, and self-confidence, and even allow them to feel as if they have a small family outside their own. On a practical level, kids in cliques always have someone to play with at recess, someone's birthday party to attend, or someone to sit with at lunch.
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.
So how can you help your grade school child develop healthy friendships and find her social niche, whether or not she's been accepted into a clique? Here are some guidelines from the experts.
Sources: Peter Adler, PhD; Diane Ross Glazer, PhD
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