It's not unusual for children to form homogeneous cliques and leave out kids that look different than them. But here are ways parents can help their kids expand their social circle.

By Melissa Hart
June 30, 2020
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In the midst of protests and political polarization, the last thing most parents want to do is enable our children to exclude marginalized classmates from their social circles. And yet, that's a usual scenario, even if it's unintentional. Children and teens form cliques with like-minded peers; this isn't a new phenomenon. Often, these groups exclude students of color, neurodivergent kids, trans kids, and kids with physical disabilities—a trend of exclusion that continues into adulthood.

"Cliques are a developmental milestone in children, but that doesn't mean we have to accept them," says Silvia Pereira-Smith, M.D., assistant professor in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina.

The reason? Homogeneous social circles aren't ideal for development. "We have to teach our children what's acceptable and help them grow beyond that to be more well-developed individuals. If we just let them sit in their cliques, they're not going to grow, and they're going to be stunted adults," she says.

These social circles can also be detrimental for those excluded. Dr. Pereira-Smith sees numerous children who suffer from depression and anxiety because of being ostracized by peers. A former substitute teacher, Dr. Pereira-Smith has personally observed kids pushed out of cliques for a number of reasons. Kids with physical impairments are excluded for not being able to keep up instead of included with play adjusted to be more inclusive. Children with lower socioeconomic status are picked on for not wearing designer brands or for getting subsidized lunches at school.

"Kids with ADHD who have more energy than their peers and more difficulty controlling impulsivity are often excluded for being different," says Dr. Pereira-Smith. "And children with autism who are trying to develop their social skills are shunned because they're not following their peer group's particular social rules."

Fortunately, there are numerous ways in which caregivers can gently guide their kids toward inclusivity in social circles—work that has positive implications throughout the school years and into adulthood.

Read Diverse Children's Books

Books are great teachers that allow caregivers to begin conversations about topics such as race and ethnicity early on, says Dr. Pereira-Smith. Caregivers can talk about being an "includer rather than an excluder" and role play specific actions children might take when they see a peer being rejected. The mother of a young child herself, Dr. Pereira-Smith stocks her house with diverse picture books that represent different cultures and abilities, such as Alexandra Penfold's All Are Welcome. "It's brightly-colored and includes a great variety of children of different backgrounds," she says.

Child psychologist Jessica Gomez, Psy.D., agrees. Caregivers need to take a close look at the books and other media their kids are consuming, says Dr. Gomez, an expert on diversity, immigration, social emotional health, and trauma at Momentous Institute, a Dallas-based nonprofit that works at the intersection of mental health and education. "Do they represent diversity in race, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, socioeconomic status?” adds Dr. Gomez, who works primarily with children of color, many of whom have been affected by poverty, trauma, and systemic oppression.

Need diverse reading suggestions? Ask your local librarians and booksellers for books that reflect minority demographics in your kid's classroom, and check out resources like the nonprofit WeNeedDiverseBooks.org, as well as Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.

Opt for Inclusive Extracurriculars

"Enrolling kids in inclusive extracurriculars instead of homogeneous activities marketed toward making your child the next generational sports star is much more nourishing for 99 percent of children than being a part of an exclusive activity," says Dr. Pereira-Smith.

Caregivers can look for sports teams, dance studios, science camps, and other after-school programs that cater to diverse groups of kids. They can focus on programs that give kids with and without disabilities the chance to train and play together, as well as those run by people from marginalized groups committed to inclusivity and emotional support for all children.

Parents can also look for regional festivals celebrating particular cultures, and volunteer at events, such as the National Buddy Walk, which takes place across the country annually to support Down syndrome.

Help Expand Your Kid's Social Circles

Playdates, birthday parties, scouting troops, informal after-school studying sessions—these are all activities that parents can help facilitate early on with the goal of inclusivity. Have conversations with your kid's teacher and at parent meetings to find out which kids are struggling socially, then discuss the best ways in which to incorporate those children into existing social structures and facilitate new ones.

Penny Salus did the latter after she adopted her son from Guatemala. She knew she wanted to raise him in a vibrant, diverse setting—that's challenging in Eugene, Oregon, a state where 85 percent of the population identifies as white. She and her husband began organizing weekly summer adventures outdoors when their son was just 2 years old. "I literally invited every single person we know who had kids. I had over 100 people on my list," she says. "It was about community and getting out with our kids and being together."

Later, she organized "Culture Nights" at her son's grammar school. "One year a man came and did an amazing dance that he created—a fusion of hip hop and break dance," she says. "We did Jewish activities, and Guatemalan activities, and Japanese tea, and piñatas—it was really amazing." When her son graduated to middle school, she enrolled him in a particularly diverse classroom and signed up to volunteer on the school's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee.

Break Down Language Barriers

Alissa Bushnell, a Bay Area parent with a 12-year-old daughter at a small school, noticed six years ago that one Latino classmate whose parents spoke little English wasn't socializing with other kids outside of class.

"The language barrier really inhibited her from scheduling playdates with the other girls in the class whose mothers only speak English," says Bushnell. "Not being able to participate really inhibited the ability for deep friendships to form."

Bushnell and her daughter began using Google Translate to communicate with the girl's family. "It was a huge help in scheduling playdates, thus breaking down barriers," she says.

Other parents and teachers have facilitated sign language lessons to help hearing kids and deaf peers forge friendships. They've made picture books that allow neurotypical children to communicate with non-verbal neurodivergent classmates, and they've learned welcoming phrases to greet students new to the classroom and to the country.

Focus On Your Own Social Circle

Dr. Jessica Gomez believes helping kids to create diverse social circles is a process which begins at home. She suggests caregivers reflect on their own values around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and then take a candid look at their own neighborhood and social circles.

"In teaching your kids, it's not enough to try to get them to diversify their cliques," she notes. "As a parent, do you walk the walk in your values and actions? What are your dinner table conversations as a family? Do you talk about the LGBTQ community, race, politics, what's happening in the country?"

In response to the killing of George Floyd, Penny Salus organized a series of backyard movie watching, including the Black Lives Matter-inspired The Hate U Give, to foster family dialogue and community. And she continues to organize Wednesday field trips to area lakes and hiking trails for her son and all his classmates. She spends extra time linking parents to one another via text and organizing socially-distanced carpools so that everyone is able to attend. "I don't want anyone to feel left out," she says.

Melissa Hart is the author of The Media Adventurer's Handbook: Decoding Persuasion in Everyday News, Ads and More (First Second, 2021). See her work at www.melissahart.com.

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