School cliques confound parents

USA Today

Night after night, Rachel Pfister returned home from her sports team practice in tears. The 15-year-old high school freshman had attended a different middle school from most of her teammates. They had a history together that didn’t include her. Was that the reason they turned their backs when she tried to give them a ‘high five?’ Was that why they kept the ball away from her? Rachel wondered. “I felt so alone,” she says. “At first, I tried to reach out to them and to fit in. When I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere, I just accepted (that) I am who I am.” The jocks, the preppies, the alternatives, the geeks — cliques have been around for years, leaving other kids feeling left out and mistreated, says Diane Burks, executive director of the Indianapolis Institute for Families.

Those inside the group often join to feel popular and accepted. Those on the outside feel left out, isolated and different. For many, the hurt can last a lifetime. Children with disabilities, those with acne, those who are overweight, those who are thin, those who are living with guardians because their parents have been killed — Burks has seen them all on the outside of a group, looking in. Eighth-grader Janna Watson felt so strongly about the influence of clothing in cliques that she conducted an experiment to prove her point. The 14-year-old, who has been on the honour roll three times and wants to be an actress or interior designer when she grows up, typically wears dark clothing. “I hate labels, but a lot of people refer to us as ‘gothic’ or ‘punk’,” she says. “They think we’re rebellious, bad kids.” At Halloween, she borrowed some low-rise jeans and a colourful, low-cut shirt, and she spent time applying makeup. “The preppy kids didn’t see it as a costume,” Janna says. “They saw that I was changing and trying to be like them.

“All of a sudden, they asked me to sit with them at lunch and hang out with them. It was kind of funny to see that changing the way I dressed opened a door for me.” Rachel Pfister looked outside her sports team for a place to belong. She made new friends in her neighborhood and through her church. In time, her skills shone, and she was promoted to the junior varsity squad. Her parents, Jeff and Beth Pfister, say they tried to help Rachel work through the conflict on the freshman team, to be herself no matter what. They take the same approach with their son and other two daughters. “The issue of popularity has always been a concern of ours. We chose to deal with it by taking a counterculture approach,” Beth Pfister says. “My husband and I prayed that our children would not be popular.” Instead, they want their

children to develop close relationships with other children whose families share similar values, she says. Parent Jeanne Rollison believes moms and dads can play an important role in the complicated world of school popularity and cliques. Rollison has confronted similar experiences with her own sixth-grade daughter, Rachel, who often felt left out in the fourth grade. “At first we thought our daughter had done something wrong,” she says, “so we asked her if she had said something to offend the other girls.” “Cliques are about children stepping away from parental approval and seeking peer approval. It becomes a fierce competition — whoever can get the most friends and approval becomes the most popular,” says Rollison, who also has a son, Nat, in third grade.

“It’s different with boys. With girls, it’s all about how they look and what they have. With boys, it’s more about athletics,” she adds. Now that Rachel, 11, is in middle school, she’s found more friends. “I think the best friends are those who are into a lot of different things,” she says. “If I had to be with the same type of people all the time, they’d get on my nerves.”