I was once speaking to an assembly of middle school girls on the subject of friendship and social cruelty and I told them I was going to speak to their parents that evening on the same topic and needed to give the parents guidance. What role, I asked, would they like their parents to play in their social lives? As if with one voice the 165 girls shouted, "Nothing…Stay out…Tell them not to get involved!" Children do not want adults helping or interfering with their friendships and their social lives. As painful as their social situations may be, most children are convinced that adult involvement will make things worse. Adults who work with children feel this prohibition. "Do Not Enter," says the sign. And yet there are times when clearly some teacher involvement is necessary in the lives of children to protect the weak, to check the power of the group, to resolve a dispute between classmates, or simply to remind children that being "cool" may not be the most important human value. So we hesitate, pause at the door, and finally enter the world of children's friendships full of misgivings, to try and be of help.
Why can't we feel more confident about children's social lives? Why don't we ever seem to get it right? Why do all parents and even veteran teachers struggle with feelings of helplessness and pain when we confront the lonely child, the victimized child, the mean group, even the class bully? There are two reasons. First, children insist on having a life away from us. Researchers' video cameras have revealed that somewhere between the ages of three and four, children in groups act differently around adults than they do when they are alone together. Everyone who has ever worked with children knows that feeling of walking into a room and sensing that all the children are holding their breath until the adult leaves. Not because they are hiding something, necessarily, but rather because they want to go back to being themselves. They cannot truly be themselves in the presence of grown-ups. That is the true generation gap.
Second, every adult was a child, and every adult has some scar tissue as a result, especially social scar tissue. We all went through middle school, we all had to worry about whether or not we were cool, or pretty, or athletic. We all suffered from teasing, from the betrayal of a friend, from the casual cruelty of the group. It was awful; at times, it was more than we thought we could bear. So now, if we could save a child, especially our own child, from that pain, we would do it in a second. But we cannot. We can prevent the worst kinds of cruelty. However, every child must necessarily feel pain and cause some social pain in order to understand human nature. There is no other way to learn about social power and real-life consequences other than through experience. As the Arab proverb says, "The tongue of experience has the most truth."
Once when I had finished a talk on this subject, an obviously distressed mother came up to me and said, "Dr. Thompson, I heard what you said in your talk, but I want you to know that the children in this school say really cruel things to each other."
"Yes," I said, "I believe you."
"No," she replied, obviously convinced that her child's school was exceptionally bad, "I mean really cruel things."
"Of course they do," was my best answer.
"No," she emphasized, "You're not understanding me, the children in this school say REALLY CRUEL things to each other."
I could tell from her vehemence that she expected me to do something about the children in her child's school. What could I say to her? "Mrs. Smith," I said, "forgive me for asking, but are you the parent of an only child?"
"Yes," she responded, somewhat surprised.
As gently as I could, I said, "Mrs. Smith, if you had more than one child at home, you could hear your very own children say REALLY CRUEL things to each other every night of the week. That's what children do, even good children, even (or especially) children who know and love each other."
The way out of this adult pain and sense of helplessness is to know more about childhood friendships and group life, to know what is normal and expectable, to know when children need us to intervene and to have a sense of what constitutes an effective intervention.
GOOD SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS ARE CRUCIAL TO CHILDREN
Good social relationships in childhood and adolescence are a better predictor of adult happiness than many other markers of success in human life, including I.Q. and academic achievement. Conversely, children who do not enjoy peer acceptance are statistically more likely to drop out of school and to suffer from psychiatric illnesses in adulthood. That is why, when I meet the rare parent — usually a father — who says to me, "I don't care about my child's social life, school work is what counts!," I want to tell him that he has it all wrong. Good social relationships matter a lot. Why? Is it just a question of children feeling liked or popular?
Willard Hartup, a psychologist who has devoted his career to studying children's friendships, says that you need co-equal relationships to learn effective communication, to learn to modulate aggression, to be sexually socialized, and to form moral values. None of these are completely intuitive or obvious. Don't adults teach these things? Isn't it adults who teach communication to children? Yes and no. Everyone knows a child who is able to speak articulately with adults but cannot seem to communicate with children his own age. These children, who sometimes look like little professors, cannot speak the language of children. I was talking to one such boy a couple of years ago and when I observed how comfortable he was talking with a psychologist, he said, "I have no problem talking with adults, it is with kids my own age that I get so nervous." A boy like that is at a serious disadvantage in relationships with his peers. They understand that he isn't on their wavelength; he may not be able to successfully negotiate with them, resolve conflict, or communicate his needs in a way that they can accept.
Adults also often think that they are responsible for controlling children's aggressive tendencies. They are, to an extent. But children, in their own way, do much of their own monitoring. Psychological research is clear on this point: The group punishes those children who are too aggressive. Parents don't always believe that this will occur, because in the short run a bully may have a terrifying reign. However, in the end, the bully is marginalized and extruded. The teachers from a girls' school in New York told me the story of a fifth-grade girl, the most popular girl in the class, who became corrupted by her social power and excessively cruel to other girls. The class was intimidated for a time, but eventually rose up and drove "the queen" from her throne. The girl left the school in seventh grade, rejected and friendless.
That the peer group is responsible for sexual socialization should not be a total surprise. How many children come to their parents or teachers and ask them, "Mom (or Ms. Jones), what do you consider sexy?" Not many, yet that is the subject of much discussion and giggling among children. It is the peer group that teaches what is sexually meaningful and stimulating. For the sake of comparison, experiments conducted with rhesus monkeys have shown that individuals raised in isolation from peers are unable to mate, even if they have been well parented. Apparently, the rough and tumble play and socialization by peers is a precursor to sexuality. Humans have more developmental paths open to them than do monkeys, nevertheless when adolescents begin to behave in sexual ways, they do so with an explicit script in mind, provided by their peers. The deep irony, of course, is that boys' groups and girls' groups are socializing each other to a different view of sex, one more body-part oriented, the other more relationally based. Men and women spend a lifetime working out their different sexual socializations with each other.
The area of peer influence that adults are most likely to miss is that of moral teaching. It did not escape Jean Piaget, who in his 1932 book, The Moral Judgment of the Child, observed that children in mixed-age, free play groups spend an extraordinary amount of time on rule formation and debate of rules. A sadness I have about the highly programmed lives independent schoolchildren live is that they have so little opportunity to participate in games organized and run by children, with the rules under the control of children.
Finally, children need their peers to give them some sense of self-worth. Indeed, every child seeks the respect or appreciation of a peer. A compliment from my daughter's friend, Miranda, has a lot more impact on my 11-year-old daughter, Joanna, than does anything I say. She takes my love for granted, and discounts it because it come from an adult; if Miranda thinks something is cool, then it really must be cool.
The American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, believed that a close friend in early adolescence, to whom he gave the name "chum," is an essential ingredient in the deepening of the personality, a vital step on the way to adulthood.
FRIENDSHIP AND POPULARITY ARE NOT THE SAME THING
In order to grow happily, and to learn what he or she needs to learn from peers, a child needs to enjoy some degree of social acceptance from a group, and to have the experience of reciprocity and loyalty in a relationship with a friend. I once asked a group of seventh graders in a small school in Virginia whether, if you were very popular, that meant you had a lot of friends. A boy answered, "No, if you're very popular, you can't be sure of any of your friends. You don't know whether they're really your friends, or they're just your friends because you're popular." Friendship is a phenomenon that occurs between two children who have a history together, who play or talk in a deeper and more meaningful way than they do with anyone else, and who stand by one another. Popularity is founded on the group's consensus that you have some attractive traits that are considered cool. According to friendship researchers, of the eight things that you need from childhood peer relationships, seven are obtainable from friendship and only one must come from the group. Friendship provides you with affection, intimacy, and a reliable alliance. From either a friend or the group you can obtain instrumental aid, nurturance, companionship, and an enhancement of self-worth. What only a group can provide is a sense of inclusion — and children do crave being included. The vast majority of human beings want to be identified with a group, whether they are children or adults, and are capable of the worst cruelties in the name of the group. We know from the savagery of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, or from the behavior of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, that when a group calls on an individual, when the group defines the "us" and "them," that human beings are capable of atrocities against neighbors with whom they have lived in peace for many years. Why should this be so? I believe the answer lies in our sociobiology. We are wired, by evolution and biology, to be pack animals, and we feel that to belong to the pack is necessary for our survival.
A girl once described the most painful social time in her life, and she used the language of life and death in her account: "The worst thing that ever happened to me was in sixth grade, when I found out that my whole group had decided in secret to go trick-or-treating without me. I thought I could survive as long as I stayed at home, but then my parents told me I had to take my younger brother out, and I thought if I ran into the group trick-or-treating without me, I would die." For many primates, of course, to be excluded from the troop can mean death. Children experience that primitive fear when they are excluded, and their pain touches us, and we want them to be included.
It is absolutely not necessary for a child to be very popular, nor for a child to have a bosom buddy for many years. Though we idealize childhood relationships that last for years, such friendships are in the minority. On average childhood friendships last for a year, because for most children in public school the group is shaken up and re-mixed at the end of each year. Independent schools offer the possibility of longer-term friendships, but that possibility is not always realized, for a variety of reasons: a long-term friendship isn't a developmental need and not many children are temperamentally or geographically capable of such a sustained commitment. When I find a Kindergarten class in a panic because every child believes that he or she should have a best friend and cannot make a match, I know that child's fears have been amplified by misguided parental notions. Not every child needs a best friend every year, especially that young.
When parents suffer about their children's relationships, it is often because in the moment they have forgotten the difference between friendship and popularity.
There's a difference.
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STAGES OF FRIENDSHIP
There are four overlapping stages of friendship in childhood: 1) birth to three years; 2) three to seven; 3) seven to twelve; 4) twelve through adulthood. Each stage builds on the achievements of the last and all grow toward the possibility of an intimate, reciprocal, and long-lasting bond. The wish to choose a friend begins early, before an infant is a year old. At first glance it would appear that infants do not have enough control over their lives or the interest in others to suggest that they make friends. Indeed, I was taught in graduate school that children younger than the age of three don't play together, they engaged only in "parallel" or side-by-side play. But anyone familiar with babies knows they are fascinated by one another.
More recent work on child friendships, done by evaluating videotapes of children's interactions, reveals that infants and toddlers show strong friendship preferences when they are in a social situation. Their exchanges with a friend are warmer, more reciprocal, more effective (in a problem-solving sense) than with other children whom they do not care about. I had an example of it in my own house. When my son, Will, was two years old, his favorite friend was Casey, the daughter of my wife's best friend, Jann. Jann and Casey would come over to our house two or three times a week, and when Will was informed of their arrival, he would always exult, "Casey's coming, Casey's coming." He would greet her at the door, they might hug, they would look fondly at each other, then they would retire to separate sides of the room, one to play with her Jasmine doll and the other to play with his Power Rangers figures. They may have only been able to play in parallel, but their emotional closeness was unmistakable. They sought each other out frequently for contact and they greeted adults as a pair; they presented themselves as friends.
Sadly, Casey and her family moved away when Will was just three years old and he missed her terribly. One day about a month after their departure, my wife stopped at the mailbox on the way to the car with Will and found a letter there dictated by Casey to her mother and intended for him. My wife put him in his car seat and then began to read him the letter. When she glanced in the rearview mirror, she saw that tears were pouring down his face.
From ages three to seven the valued currency of friendship is mutually enjoyable play. At this age children are developmentally capable of setting aside their own neediness and greediness in order to have the enjoyment of collaborative play. But it takes a decision to set aside one's own wishes and wants for a moment. When Will was just short of his fourth birthday, three boys his age came up to him in an outdoor restaurant. When they got close to him they all assumed the classic Ninja stance, hands projected outward at angles; Will did the same. Then one of the boys said, "I'm the Red Power Ranger." Will said, "I'm the Red Power Ranger." There was a pause. The boys could not all play together until one was willing to give up the possibility of being the Red Power Ranger. Having two Red Power Rangers, obviously, would destroy these boys' reality.
When two girls, age five, spend an afternoon playing together on a "common plateau" of shared play, they are demonstrating an enormous amount of developmental maturity. That level of sharing is never easy, but when they become fully involved in it, it looks enviably easy; they are fully absorbed in the flow of the play. After some time, however, the effort may break down. The parent down in the kitchen may suddenly have two angry girls in front of her, with one saying, "She says I always have to be the groom, she gets to be the bride!" An inexperienced parent may try to intervene in the play. Though the girl appears to have asked for help, children rarely welcome such interventions. Parental intrusions simply delay the process of the girls working it out. Sometimes it is necessary to set the oven timer and say to one child, "You can be the bride for ten minutes, and then you have to switch." But in general, the experienced parent says, "Oh....oh....um.... would you girls like some juice?" When the five-year-old egos are revived with juice the crisis will likely have passed and the girls will go back upstairs and resume the flow of their play.
While fantasy play dominates the friendships of children between the ages of three and seven, after age seven conversation and gossip come to play an increasingly important part of the discourse. Why? Not only are children able to sustain conversation, but there are gripping issues to talk about, namely the social scene in school and one's status in the group hierarchy. Good friends become each other's coaches, assessing each other's social assets, performance, and missteps.
Allow me to digress for a moment. At the age of around seven, in every school, or where there are mixed groups of boys and girls (church group or social organization), the groups begin to split along gender lines. The split comes about because of the universal discovery that the "Others" are strange, different, "tainted." There is no help for this. I went to a lovely progressive school in the Washington, D.C. area, a school that has been rightly proud of its high degree of acceptance and tolerance. However, this one year they asked me to meet with a fourth-grade class to discuss the extreme separation between boys and girls.
The children were asked to sit with me in a circle on a carpet and were required to sit in a boy-girl-boy-girl configuration, in hopes that proximity would heal the rift. I asked them when and for how long they had been split in this way, and a sweet-faced girl said, as she pointed to the boy on her left and the boy on her right, "Well, it started in second grade, when we discovered that boys have cooties!" This discovery is universal, and it signals the beginning of a period of gender-exclusive groups, in which children are involved in a process of establishing status hierarchy and power within their own gender. How good a boy are you? How do you measure up to the girl standard? Suffice it to say that this process is rigorous and can be cruel; the overriding criterion is that of being "cool" and because it is difficult to be cool all the time, friends support and coach one another. They gossip in order to establish that they are well acquainted with the norms of behavior. Boy "A" might say to boy "B" in the carpool, "Did you see Mike cry in school today?" To which boy "B" might reply, "I did, but you know he was in a lot of pain."
Translated, this exchange reveals the underlying struggle to define the norms of behavior and the acceptable variations in it. Boy "A" is really asking, "Did you see Mike cry in school today? Did you see Mike break the rule of cool? Did he act like a boy should act? Should we roundly condemn him for his cowardly display?" To which boy "B" replies, "Ordinarily we would heap contempt on him for public crying, but in this case he should be forgiven. A car had driven over his foot and under the circumstances, even I — brave boy that I am — would have cried. So let's give him a waiver."
At around age twelve, at least in friendship, cool gives way to warmth: the warmth of personal disclosure and emotional closeness. It is at the beginning of adolescence that children seem to want to have a Number One best friend in whom they can confide. Children begin to tell the secrets of the heart to each other; they confess to one another their real pain. Typically, girls talk more about these matters. Boy stoicism requires that boys know each other's pain, but not bring it up, for fear of humiliating your friend.
All of these stages of friendship are the templates for adult friendship, which involves parallel play (imagine working in the kitchen beside another adult), gossip and mutual coaching, cooperative play (i.e. regular tennis partners), and personal disclosure. There is a debate in psychology about whether personal dis- closure, which is a more common girl style, should be the definition of an intimate friendship, or whether the boy style of emotional closeness without so much disclosure is an equally strong form of friendship. It is a lively question. What is clear is that friendship has the potential to become deeper, more intimate, and more supportive as time goes on. Though it is obvious, let me state that what is important is not how many friends a child has, but the quality of the friendships.
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CLIQUES AND POPULARITY
The earliest signs of cliques can be seen as early as second grade. They are very much in evidence by fourth grade, and they dominate the lives of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders until they begin, mercifully, to fade in high school. Only the most popular clique tries to keep itself alive in high school, afraid of letting go of the prestige and power it has enjoyed. After the cruelty of middle school, everyone else has started to tire of the status chase and in high school people join identity groups, which are not as exclusive. Indeed, you can declare yourself a "jock" or a "computer nerd" and you will be accepted on the basis of these identifications.
What everyone remembers with some pain, and fears for their children, is the power of cliques in middle school, grades four to eight. In middle school the cruel and unchangeable — one is tempted to say Darwinian — criteria of looks, athletic ability, and wealth rule the social status hierarchy in cliques. Wherever I go, I ask adult audiences to remember what made one popular in middle school. If you were a girl, the criteria were looks, clothes, and a magnetic social personality; for boys it was athletic ability, size, and verbal command of a group. As heartless and irrational as it is, children choose friends to a significant degree on the basis of physical attractiveness. In one experiment, first-graders were given the photos of very beautiful and not-so-beautiful children and asked to say, just from the photographs, which of these children would make good friends. Overwhelmingly, attractive children were imagined to be potentially good friends. Homely children were seen as possibly mean and unfriendly. Equally unfairly, research shows that children from wealthier families are preferred by their age-mates. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, and every child has to learn the fact that beautiful people don't always act well, but children are deceived by these superficial criteria, and never more so than in middle school.
I was once discussing these criteria for popularity and a woman physician came up to me and said,
"I am so upset to hear about this; I thought we had gotten farther than that." She hoped that humans were more highly evolved. I proposed to her that People magazine and many movies were based on these same Darwinian, middle-school criteria of physical size, athleticism, and sexual attractiveness. After all, Cindy Crawford is not in magazines because she has a medical degree, and Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzennegger are not two of the highest paid male actors because of their superior diction. Though middle-school values may continue to rule in popular culture, they give way to more enlightened characteristics by the end of high school. Intelligence, leadership ability, kindness, compassion, and other attributes dictate popularity and friendship choices by late high school. Or as an eleventh grade girl said to me, "We still have our popular kids, but they're not really our leaders anymore." In other words, middle school social Darwinism doesn't last forever. High school is a broader social canvas and provides many more and different social opportunities for children than did middle school.
Why do cliques exist? Do we have to have them? Cliques serve a purpose. At a time when individual self-confidence is shaky, cliques provide affirmation, support, and identity. Research shows that all schoolchildren experience some drop in self-esteem during the middle school years; it may occur during fourth grade when children's self-assessments of their academic performance becomes more realistic ("I'm never going to be good at math.") or in seventh grade when traditionally children have moved to junior high schools and are beginning to separate somewhat from their parents. Whatever the reason, children in cliques can provide each other with company and nurturance and a sense of who they are. Unfortunately, the dynamics of group cohesion require an "us" and a "them." And so cliques become exclusive and competitive and status-oriented, and which clique you are in can become incredibly important to a child. I believe that any adult could look at her or his class list from seventh grade and pick out which boys or girls were in the popular clique. Something that important is not so easily forgotten.
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VICTIMS, BULLIES, AND SCAPEGOATING
The classic bully is physically large, verbally commanding, has followers but not real friends and is, most importantly, uninhibited about being aggressive. Ordinarily, the bully comes from an unhappy family situation, or has modeled on a bullying father, and does not have satisfying relationships with adults. Victims, by contrast, tend to be physically small and betray anxiety. Often they have some physical handicap, even a minor one. I asked an eighth-grade girl, "Who do you tease?" She answered, "We tease a funny-looking boy with a weird face. Then his parents got him plastic surgery, so now we tease him about that!" Victims are strikingly inhibited about expressing aggression and often come to feel that they deserve the abuse they are receiving. In the long run, the prognosis for bullies is bad; they do not share adult values, do not do well in school and often drop out. Victims, on the other hand, survive because they are connected to their families and share the values of school. However, it may take them until their early twenties to recover from being in a chronic victim situation, and they are prone to depression in adult life as a result of the trauma.
I do not see much of the classic bully-victim situation in independent schools — that is, where one bully locks onto one victim and makes his life a misery. Indeed, most of the bullies I see in independent school are themselves rejected children of the aggressive type. What I do see is classes engaged in scapegoating. While it does not occur in every grade in every year, many classes have a social outcast, sometimes two, who are rarely included and are chronically teased. When a child is assigned the scapegoat as a lab partner, she may yell out, "Oh, do I have to work with her?" The chronic scapegoating of an individual child is one of the most painful aspects of school life. A child who is habitually rejected may develop into someone so touchy and explosive that other children and parents may say, "He brings it on himself." The truth is more complicated. Very often the class has shaped the behavior of the victim so powerfully that he or she has become at one with the role of angry victim.
It takes a lot of work, both with the group and the scapegoat, to change such a pattern.
Why do classes choose a scapegoat? Why is group cruelty such a feature of childhood? In the course of growing up, children try out everything on each other. They bring to bear all of their love, their energy, intelligence, compassion, seductiveness, and manipulativeness on relationships. So it is natural and inevitable that they would experiment with social power and capacity for cruelty. Every human being has, either deliberately or unconsciously, experimented with hurting someone else, and most of us did a lot of it in childhood when we were in groups and imagined that we did not need to take responsibility for what we were doing. The original biblical concept of the scapegoat recognized that human beings in groups like to project all evil onto one person (or one symbolic object like a goat) and then drive him away, leaving the group feeling virtuous and superior. What serves the group's psychology, however, might be disastrous for the individual.
Parents and school personnel need to create a climate in which children will not be driven to be cruel, and will be able to take responsibility for themselves when they do act cruelly. Parents and teachers must be allies, must use each other as consultants. Anxious parents need to rely on teachers to give them perspective; teachers need to hear from parents the experiences a child is having that he or she is not able to tell the teacher for fear of being a tattle-tale or making the situation worse. Finally, and most painfully, adults must take responsibility when they are contributing to a climate of cruelty in a school. In one school the parents told me that a seventh-grade scholarship girl was being cruelly teased because her clothes came from Sears. I pointed out that the parking lot was filled with Mercedes and BMW's. This was a school where labels were important to everyone, and the children were only reflecting the surrounding values.
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THE ROLE OF THE SCHOOL IN ADDRESSING SOCIAL CRUELTY
A school must have an ethos and a moral code that stands against excessive exclusion and bullying. Will any school be able to stop exclusion entirely? No, certainly not. It is the number one social problem from
pre-K through twelfth grade and it is as inevitable as the tide. However, as Vivian Paley demonstrated in her beautiful little book, You Can't Say You Can't Play, it is worthwhile fighting the tide. One year, as she noted in her book, she put up a sign in her Kindergarten class that proclaimed, "You can't say you can't play." At first, it is greeted with disbelief. "What's the whole point of playing?," one student wails. Does Paley stop exclusion in Kindergarten that year? No, not exactly. But every time a situation arises, she can ask the children whether their behavior lives up to her rules, and she generates a moral discussion as a result. She concludes that her rule is a "ladder out of the trap we've been in" — it helps children get out of the "habit" of exclusion. Any moral stand, any code of conduct, any list of rules at the front of a classroom helps children out of the trap of their own meanness.
Teachers also need to have relationships with children that are close enough that children can tell them when they are suffering. Teachers need to be trained by their schools to handle bad class dynamics and serious bullying. Finally, in extreme situations, the entire set of parents of an unusually cruel grade may need to be engaged in the effort to turn things around.
Dan Olweus's studies in Norway and Sweden suggest that awareness and intervention can cut down on 50 percent of the bullying that takes place in school, and that is significant because most bullying — contrary to myth — does take place during the supervised school day. In the end, however, if a school cannot protect a victim, or a class is too locked into their image of a child as a scapegoat, it is necessary to counsel the child out of school. He or she may be able to change and grow in a fresh environment, where the group does not have such a fixed negative view of the child.
WHAT THE CLASSROOM TEACHER CAN DO
Research has shown that teachers who use cooperative and collaborative teaching methods, in which popular and unpopular children and their various talents are "showcased" to one another, and where children depend on one another, can make a real difference in improving the day-to-day life of relatively unpopular children. A mother once said to me, her voice full of a sense of injustice, "Dr. Thompson, the teachers at this school don't let children pick their lab partners!" Clearly I was going to agree with her that this practice was terrible. My answer disappointed the mother. I said, "Good for the teachers." A teacher needs to be in charge of the social groupings in her classroom; it cuts down on the social anxiety of the children. Some teachers use Friday "seat lotteries" to mix up the group; others shake it up through different activity groupings. In the classroom of such a teacher, an "unpopular" child will be less unpopular by the end of the year. In the classroom of a hierarchical teacher who creates a competitive, dog-eat-dog situation, or who unwittingly colludes with the cliques in the class, the misery of an unpopular child will deepen throughout the year.
When a child is suffering from social isolation, a teacher can help by encouraging peer initiation, by arranging for peer modeling. The more generous and socially capable children in the class might be able to take a child "under their wing." That's the premise of big-brother, big-sister pairings in many schools. Peer counselors in high schools often serve this function. Finally, a teacher may be able to offer herself to a child as a private coach. She might say to a child, "I see that things are sometimes tough for you socially. Would you mind if, when I notice that you are doing something particularly successful with your classmates, I point it out to you? An encouraging and discreet coach, never a critic, can be enormously helpful to a socially unsuccessful child.
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WHAT PARENTS SHOULD REMEMBER
What parents need to remember when their child is suffering is that everyone survives school, even middle school. We all did, with more or less psychic scarring. Everybody has some painful memories. What parents need to do is take the long view. Your child will survive the social rigors of school life, and she or he will learn important things about friendship, loyalty, betrayal, group behavior, and individual heroism that cannot be learned in any other way.
Parents must be careful not to be pulled into the cruel dynamics of children and find themselves, consciously or unconsciously, colluding in the exclusion of a child. If your daughter has nine girls in her class and she wants to invite eight of them for a sleep over at her birthday, what do you say?
Finally, though you may be a compassionate and interested parent, though you may be interested in your child's deepest psychological experience, don't interview your child only for pain! Too many parents get hooked on their child's terrible situation, and ask only about the things that have gone wrong. A Kindergarten child in Boston, with two attorney parents, was highly anxious about whether or not she had a "best friend" (her parents believed that children should have "best friends" in Kindergarten). In her anxiety, she made overly aggressive overtures that frightened other children. During the year she told her teacher that when she went home at night, one or the other of her parents asked her, "Who was mean to you today?" and wrote down her answers in a journal. This family was apparently building a legal brief against her classmates. What was the message to her? Her parents weren't interested in her resilience, her strategies, her ways of coping. They were interested in pain and blame. They were also reinforcing her sense of victimhood and misery.
Have confidence in your children. Remember that they are learning useful social strategies that they will have all of their lives. After listening compassionately to the social dilemmas of a child, don't just reassure or exhort the child. It is important to ask, "How did you get out of that situation?" "How did you know to do that?" "Where did you learn to say something like that?" "Was it effective?" A child believes the story that comes out of his or her own mouth (don't we all?). If the story you elicit is one of strength and adaptation, your child will feel strong and capable; if the story you elicit is one of pain and victimhood, your child will experience him or herself as perhaps friendless and overwhelmed and he or she will be ashamed. The truth is, your child is probably struggling in the way most children do. Finding friends and keeping friends is not easy. Being a member of a close-knit group over time is a sophisticated task that requires practice, experience, and goodwill. It is, after all, not just children who struggle with these problems. As adults, we struggle daily to be good friends to our friends, responsible neighbors to our neighbors, and caring colleagues to our co-workers. Why do we imagine that it could ever be easy for children to do these things?
Michael Thompson is a psychologist and school consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His book (co-authored by Edward Hallowell), Finding the Heart of the Child: Essays on Children, Families, and Schools, is now available through the NAIS Bookstore.
Accepted, Rejected, Neglected, and Controversial Children
When asked by their classmates who they like or who they would like to spend time with, most students fall into several basic groupings. A great deal of research has been done on these groups, some of which is summarized here.
The vast majority of children are liked and accepted by their peers; they share a variety of qualities which help them be accepted, and the acceptance in turn reinforces these positive attributes.
• High on measures of sociability and cognitive ability
• Low on measures of aggression, loneliness, disruptive behavior, and withdrawal
• Positive relationships with peers and adults
• Use assertiveness and win-win strategies to achieve goals and resolve conflicts
A small number of children are actively disliked and rejected by their peers; this rejection may continue from year to year. There are two sub-types of rejected students: rejected-submissive children tend to be ostracized and victimized, rejected-aggressive students tend to be bullies or otherwise anti-social.
• High on measures of aggression, withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and loneliness
• Low on measures of cognitive and social skills
• Poor at peer-entry situations (hover, then impulsively use high-risk strategies to try to enter)
• Unpredictable, do things which embarrasses self and others
• Rejected-submissive children benefit from social skills training and help with integrating into the classroom; rejected-aggressive children benefit from interventions aimed at impulse control, anger management, and clear consequences of their behavior
Neglected children are neither liked nor disliked by their peers; they often "fall through the cracks" because they are not disruptive or overtly distressed.
• Intermediate between accepted and rejected children on measures of loneliness, depression, withdrawal, sociability, cognitive ability
• Less well-known by peers, low level of involvement with group activities
• Because neglected children are often compliant, adult-oriented, and/or academically high achieving, adults often miss their social isolation
• Usually develop a best friend by late elementary school
• Neglected children benefit from opportunities for visibility and involvement, and from family therapy to address family patterns of isolation and withdrawal
Liked by some peers and disliked by others, some examples of controversial students are bullies who are disliked by their victims and liked by their henchmen; "class clowns" who are liked by some and disdained by others; "queen bees" who are liked by their own cliques but seen as stuck-up by others; or (in high school) artistic or outcast students who have found a niche for themselves but are still rejected by the in-group.
• Combine traits of accepted and rejected children: high aggression and high sociability
• Compensate for their disruptive and aggressive behavior with their cognitive and social abilities, so buffered from exclusion
• Less impulsive than rejected-aggressive students, so can control aggression when adults are present and display aggression in socially acceptable ways
• Controversial children benefit from coaching and training to develop insight into the impact their behavior has on others