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The Need to Fit In

Last summer, my daughter, Katie, had her first run-in with a clique at day camp. A slightly older, more assertive girl ran a little "club" like a martinet. To be a member, the girls had to exclude the boys, and one boy in particular  -- a good pal of Katie's named Max, whom she had known since her preschool years. All of a sudden, Katie, not yet 6 years old, was torn by what my wife and I realized was not merely a social problem but her first true moral dilemma: Does she curry favor with her new friend in order to secure her place in the social order, or remain loyal to Max, who was clearly getting his feelings hurt by the girls' rejection  -- especially Katie's?

Over a period of two weeks or so, we had a number of heart-to-heart talks with Katie as her social agony unfolded. We listened to her tearful accounts. We advised her. We explained that not all leaders are good leaders, and that without followers  -- meaning Katie and the other girls  -- a leader is not all that powerful. We talked to her camp counselors, who intervened strategically when necessary. We talked to Max's mom and arranged extra playdates with Max. Eventually, things worked out (Katie and Max still plan to get married!), in good part because Katie, in her gut, knew right from wrong.

But even the experts agree: It can be a cold, hard world out there on the playground, in the lunchroom, at the camp picnic, in the locker room. Where there are human groups, there is social hierarchy. And as we parents look on from the sidelines, it can pain us to see our children mistreated by their peers.

Fortunately, youngsters do not have to be the most popular kids in their class in order to have fulfilling social lives; they just have to be well-liked by a few good friends--or even one. While we cannot protect them from all the hurt they will endure in the rough-and-tumble of their social lives, we can certainly help them adapt to their circumstances and share the tough lessons we learned from our own school days and in the years since.

The Lure of the Group
Ages 6 to 9

At age 6, children are simply happy to find a friend or two or three who share their interests. Fortunately, the popular children in the early grade-school years are the ones who are well-behaved, considerate of others, and good students. "Children still look to adults for clues about whom to favor and admire," explains Thomas Berndt, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Purdue University. Eventually, as "the world of peers becomes more separate from the world of adults, you can be well-liked by peers even if your teachers don't think you're particularly wonderful."

"They develop their own rules," says Bradford Brown, Ph.D., chair of the department of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Then some of these ideas about who's popular and who's not come into play."

Because children become increasingly group-oriented, the most popular peers also tend to be those who can manage social relations within a group, make other children feel good, and come up with fun things to do.

The groups themselves become single-gender. "Cliques and popularity affect girls far more strongly than boys," observes George Burns, coordinator of the lower school at the Bank Street School in New York City. "Boys are drawn together more by activities, girls by the exploration of relationships and emotional intimacy. Girls tend to be more closed and can make it very difficult to join their group if you're not considered someone who's liked a lot." Boys, on the other hand, travel in larger, looser groups, which also supply a pool of ready players for their games.

But they all grow more self-aware, which inevitably leads them to survey the social terrain and figure out where they stand in the hierarchy of peers.

Shutting Others Out
Ages 10 to 12

Cliques  -- which experts define as a small group of children who mutually choose one another as friends  -- clearly emerge at these ages. Some cliques are exclusive, others more open. Some children long to be in a certain group; others could not care less. "But it tends to be more obvious who's in and who's out," says Brown. "Children have to suffer not being allowed to sit at a particular lunch table, not being asked to a party, being ignored at a social function, being teased on a regular basis for how they look. Girls tend to feel this more than boys."

Typically, girls must learn survival techniques boys are not even aware of. "Aggression is expressed through what's probably the most important thing for girls  -- their relationships," says Kathryn Urberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wayne State University. One mother of three in Matawan, NJ, describes a typical scenario involving her 12-year-old daughter: "This one girl was her best friend; then another girl came along, said bad things about my daughter, and stole her friend."

There are two different kinds of popular children: first, those who are well-liked because they are kind, helpful, and enjoyable; and a second (sometimes overlapping) group who are admired and sought-after because of other attributes, such as good looks, athletic prowess, their family's social or economic status, the ability to attract members of the opposite sex, a striking talent (to sing, dance, or perform on stage, for instance), or a physical maturity or apparent world-liness. The preoccupation with social status begins to peak from around age 12 until high school--a time of many physical, social, and school-related changes. "How you're doing compared to others becomes very important," Urberg points out. "Belonging to a popular group gives you some reassurance that you're okay."

Once children get to high school they may discover a more relaxed, diverse social system. Until then, expect them to navigate some treacherous waters, while bearing in mind that "experiencing a little rejection and learning to cope with it isn't necessarily a bad thing," says Urberg. "It happens to all of us."