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Cliques and Fitting In

Although parents can't finagle the coveted top spots of the middle-school heap for their children, they can help them locate a spot for themselves. Furthermore, we can change the way our children perceive themselves and their place on the social ladder.

The starting point lies in guiding your child on an information-gathering mission. Ask him to think about the school cafeteria and the groups that congregate there. You can go into any lunchroom in any part of the country and see a social order. The middle-schoolers know exactly at which table in what part of the room to set down their lunch tray.

According to Colorado sociologists and researchers Patricia and Peter Adler, four basic groups define the middle-school social culture:

  • The popular clique or cool group, whose members have the most friends, socialize earlier than others inside and outside of school, and appear to be having all the fun.
  • The fringe group or popular-clique wannabes, who mimic the rules set by the top caste.
  • The friendship circles -- small groups of several friends who opt for a look and culture of their own.
    Some of these circles are defined by a similar hobby or interest, such as the skateboarders or computer geeks; others are defined by a look and style, such as the Abercrombies (named for the clothing store) or Goths (who dress in black).
  • The loners, who appear to have no friends and may envy all of those kids who seem to belong so naturally.

    As you talk with your child, determine how closely her analysis of her school's social grid follows the Adlers' observations. (Pretty close, we imagine.) Encourage your child to talk with you by asking, "Whatever happened to...," identifying one of her old classmates. Or you can ask her to explain the criteria for admission to the clique. Inevitably, as your child explains the caste system, she will tell you where she fits.

    While your child recounts his observations, make sure you tell him how impressed you are with his ability to read the social landscape. Empathize when he groans about the injustices of the powers that be. Above all, get the point across that your child is anything but a social know-nothing -- no matter where he falls on the social ladder.

    Let your child know that no matter where she is in the cafeteria hierarchy, there are advantages and disadvantages. The stereotypical winners (those from the popular clique) don't always feel or act like winners, just as the supposed losers (the loners) have winning characteristics.

    Young adolescents don't always understand this. As your child leads you on this guided tour of "popularity city," pay attention to what he believes. In all likelihood your child envies the popular girls and boys because they seem to get everything that's fun -- from love letters to top billing in yearbooks to recognition from teachers. Children who dwell in the twosomes or threesomes (friendship circles), revolving around alternative music or the marching band, may miss the perks of higher and cooler ground. The fact is that each and every category carries within it both pluses and minuses.

    Understanding this message bolsters, humbles, and stretches every child's self-image. Stress to your child that even popular boys and girls are prone to anxieties and unhappiness. And those kids who seem to have little to offer have potential that may not be realized during middle school or even high school. Reassure your child that every one of his classmates struggles and suffers, even if it isn't obvious.

    As you and your middle-schooler probe more deeply into each of these groups, you might point out how those middle-schoolers in friendship circles (which generally constitute 45 percent of a school's population, according to the Adlers) are the most content and have the best self-image. "Individuals in the middle group (the friendship circles) generally (feel) good about themselves," the Adlers concluded. Why? Being able to count on loyalty from their friends and not living with so much anxiety about losing their position in the hierarchy adds up to a healthier self-image and higher self-esteem. The popular types tend to wear anxiety along with the latest fashions. Those in the fringe group live in a state of second-best.

    Isolated middle-schoolers are sentenced to loneliness and rejection. It's important for these kids' parents to recognize their plight. These children probably have a hidden talent or unrecognized potential. Plus, they may have the time to devote to improving that skill or talent. Parents need to help such kids identify their hidden assets and find ways to mine those abilities.

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