But Not All Girls (and Boys) Play With All Other Girls (and Boys)
Social acceptance is more complicated than simply banding with same-sex friends, of course. Even within gender groups, kids tend to subdivide. Sometimes these subgroups are based on similar interests or personality traits: There may be a group of fashiony girls, or pop-savvy girls, or hippie girls, or academic achievers. But often it's not clear what the defining trait of a particular group is, much less what the rules of membership might be.
"A lot of these social groups are based on hierarchies," explains Lagattuta. One or two extremely popular kids in the group determine who's in and who's out, and everyone else falls in line behind them. The alpha kids tend to be smart (but not nerdy), attractive, athletic, and outgoing, and to have a social confidence that attracts other children. Being embraced by one of these kids is a sure ticket to social acceptance.
But in grade school, social leaders don't always use their power for good, something Sonja Hefta of Mayville, ND, was reminded of last year. "When Ingrid was nine, one girl in her class suddenly decided that the other kids couldn't be friends with her and Ingrid. This girl made people miserable if they tried to be friends with both, and Ingrid went from having many friends to none."
When a powerful child turns on her minions for no discernible reason, it can be terrifying -- not just for kids who are trying desperately to become accepted but also for the children who are already in. "Children know that membership in a social group is a fragile situation," says Lagattuta. "One day someone likes you, and the next day they don't." That's why perfectly nice children often won't defend another child. It's not that they're heartless; it's that the lower down you are on the social ladder, the harder it is to stand up to the group. Plus, it's difficult for kids to understand that doing nothing can actually be hurtful, she says. If your child lets on that she's in this position, Lagattuta suggests asking her to think about how she would feel if she were the target -- how grateful she'd be if someone stood up for her and how upset she'd be if no one did. It may not immediately change things, but there's a good chance it will get her thinking about what makes a good friend.
That said, alpha kids aren't totally insulated from the crowd, either: They can lose or gain status from school year to school year just like everyone else. To help kids weather the ups and downs, encourage them to make a variety of friends in a variety of settings -- by joining school clubs and rec-league sports teams, and inviting different kids to come home for playdates. For those children who are feeling completely rejected, your goal is to help them gradually rediscover their confidence, says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of the new book Making Friends: A Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child's Friendships. "Plenty of happy home time with family, safe friends, and cousins, often helps unsettled kids forget the hurt," she says. To help them handle a tough moment at school, come up with a prepared response they can use, like "Why do you need to say/do this? What's your problem?" Another option: a mantra. "When my daughter Rosanna felt uncertain, she felt stronger when she could repeat to herself, 'I'm a good, kind person. She's the nightmare!'?"