As children learn about having friends and being friends in elementary school, cliques tend to form. Cliques have always been prominent in the social landscape of middle school, but now they can be seen in grades as young as kindergarten. It seems that girls especially concern themselves with who is in and who is out of the 'popular' group.
Cliques can be very destructive, as anyone who has experienced their exclusion knows. It disturbs me to hear professionals say that cliques are an inevitable part of children's social life. Acceptance by a group is important to all humans, but the harmful power of cliques can be enhanced or diminished by the influence of adults and peers in the social environment.
In the early elementary years, children tend to make friends with others, usually of the same gender, in their immediate environment - their classroom, neighborhood, church group, sports team, and other everyday settings. When cliques form at this age, they are frequently reflections of adult cliques; and, they are enabled by teachers and other adults in an atmosphere of privilege and exclusion based on physical appearance, social class, and other local criteria.
Cliques usually have a leader who uses emotional manipulation to empower some and exclude others. Children who are part of a clique will experience emotional highs and lows as they strive to become and to remain members of the clique. Not surprisingly, this is a painful experience even for those who are accepted by the clique; and it's a teaching opportunity for parents to help children understand how and why cliques are hurtful.
Cliques can be minimized in the school setting, even in a community atmosphere that promotes cliquishness and exclusivity. But, it takes administrators, teachers, and parents who know how to disrupt cliques early and teach children the importance of diversity and inclusion.
I've seen age cohorts of children who are very cliquish as well as those who are more inclusive. The difference seems to be the influence of children who are leaders in their cohort. When peer leaders value inclusiveness and being friendly to everyone, the atmosphere is quite different from the culture that develops when peer leaders value only those with the cutest clothes or athletic ability. This culture tends to form early and lasts until the identity stabilization of late adolescence.
What Parents Can Do to Prevent the Harmful Effects of Childhood Cliques
First, be aware of the social climate in your child's everyday environment. Keep a sharp eye out for the emotional manipulation and the emotional highs and lows of a cliquish social milieu. If you see that it is a problem, take action to confront it with your child, the school, and other families. You may not be in a position to change things, but you can teach your own child the proper way to make and keep friends.
Teach your child the values of The Golden Rule. I am still influenced by my grandfather's instruction to me during the civil rights turmoil of our Southern U.S. culture of the 1960s. 'We should love our neighbor as ourselves,' was our family's guiding principle through integration and the prejudice we had to overcome toward Black students at school.
Teach your child to be a leader, the kind of leader that can change the entire climate of a social group. Self-confidence, empathy, individuality, diversity, inclusion, responsibility, friendliness, loyalty - these are the character traits of peer leaders in a healthy social group at school, church, or neighborhood.
Teach your child the power of one. In the famous Asch social psychology demonstration of the power of groups, individuals were influenced to deny what they could see with their own eyes UNLESS one person had the courage to go against the group. Then, the negative power of the group falls apart.
Involve your child in a variety of social groups. Young children usually don't have the skills to cope with cliques, and they need a certain level of protection from feeling that it is 'all or nothing' in their social world. Build up their sense of belonging through different groups in the school and community.
Be a good role model. Avoid cliques in your own social environment. Gossip and put-downs are just as harmful when you're an adult, and children learn what is acceptable by observing how you handle social relationships.