When Margaret Sagarese began writing about middle-school kids nearly a decade ago, she addressed problems like drugs and sex as individual issues, but she doesn’t anymore. “Now I understand that friendships and cliques are at the heart of all these problems,” she says. “The decisions girls make are so often determined by friends or lack of them, by humiliation or acceptance.” That’s why her book, Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle (Broadway, 2001), focuses on belonging and exclusion. Here’s her take on cliques.
Not the cliques we remember
You and I might remember cliques as groups of friends, usually girls, who wouldn’t let others join. But the cliques your daughter encounters probably aren’t as benign as the ones you grew up with. School is a harsher place than it used to be. Ask your daughter which girls are regularly insulted or humiliated in her class at school. She can name names; she can tell you stories. Today’s cliques often contain bullies—girls who hold power by being cruel to others.
From the time they’re toddlers, girls are discouraged from fighting physically and expressing their anger directly. So by middle school they learn to fight with betrayal, exclusion, rumors, and belittling. Your daughter’s classroom may be a relatively gentle one, and her circle of friends may be kind. If so, that’s wonderful. But we need to be aware that nearly every middle school contains cliques and bullies. No matter what role a girl plays—bully, victim, or bystander—she knows the hurt cliques cause.
Mapping the cafeteria
You and your daughter can gain perspective on her social setting by talking about her school cafeteria. By middle school, every girl knows which table is open to her—where she’s welcome to sit and where she’s not wanted. Ask your daughter to draw a diagram showing where different cliques and groups sit.
As your daughter tells you about various groups, she’ll be describing a caste system that follows a predictable pattern. Sociologists have found that that each middle-school child falls into one of four categories—the popular clique, the fringe, middle-friendship circles, or the loners. The popular clique is the cool group—beautiful, charming, affluent, and athletic. They make up about 35 percent of the school population. Fringe kids, about 10 percent of the population, hover around the popular clique trying to get in. The third category, middle-friendship circles, is the largest, with nearly 45 percent of the kids belonging here. Girls in this category form small groups of several friends apiece, and sometimes adopt a style like Goth or grunge. They know they aren’t particularly popular. Some care, others don’t. The final category is the loner. As many as 10 percent of the girls in your daughter’s class sit by themselves in the cafeteria and walk the halls alone.
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