The cruelty of cliques

Teen-agers: Ridicule and bullying can make life miserable for middle-schoolers, but parents can help, authors say.

March 18, 2001|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to the Sun

From Pennsylvania to California, the headlines are depressingly familiar -- a student, feeling alienated and angry, opens fire on classmates. In one recent deadly spree, a former Maryland teen kills two and injures 13 at his San Diego area high school.

Fearful parents demand better protection for their children. Politicians talk about gun control. Schools consider installing metal detectors.

Margaret Sagarese and Charlene C. Giannetti have a different solution in mind. Instead of focusing on weapons and security guards, they suggest taking a closer look at the "climate of cruelty" that pervades middle and high schools.

"No one addresses the root cause of school violence: a steady diet of debilitating ridicule," they write in their latest book, "Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle" (Broadway Books, $14).

A boy's best friend suddenly joins the popular crowd, leaving him in the dust. Or a girl gets teased in the cafeteria, as other students watch and laugh.

"In the climate of cruelty that thrives in today's schools and peaks in middle schools, everybody's child suffers," Giannetti and Sagarese write.

That cruelty comes largely from cliques, the authors argue. And understanding how those cliques work can give parents the tools to help their children through this difficult time.

"Cliques deal in social power. Formed around a leader or two, the pack lets it be known that not everybody is welcome. ... Excluding becomes a primary activity," they explain.

Cliques have always been around, but today's middle schoolers have particular disadvantages, Sagarese said in a phone interview from her home in New York.

"The language, the culture is meaner," she said. "Civility is on the wane. Cursing has gotten more epidemic."

Sitcoms and advertisements set impossible standards of what it means to be cool. "We certainly were a lot more innocent," she said. "There was less media to define us. We had more room to define ourselves."

Kids are involved with sex and drugs at younger ages. And frazzled working parents might not have the time or energy to help their children cope. "Years ago, not as many women worked," she said. "Many kids are left to their own devices. They spend more time with peer groups and less time with family."

Sagarese and Giannetti began writing books about middle schoolers when each was the mother of an 11-year-old. They teamed up to write the books "The Roller-Coaster Years" and "Parenting 911," and they became online experts for chats about family issues in the Parent Soup section of

Through interviews with kids and parents, they came to realize "the issue of social standing is the lens through which everything else should be seen," Sagarese said.

The authors, now the parents of 17-year-olds, focused on middle school because it is a time when young people are leaving childhood behind and groping toward a new identity.

By the time these teens reach high school, they may be more secure and better able to deal with social pressures, Sagarese said.

"Not that cliques don't persist, but what happens is that as children move into later adolescence they rely less on peers for their self-worth. There's a tremendous amount of peer pressure at this level because they're sort of in-between," said Chandra McKnight, school psychologist at Burleigh Manor Middle School and St. John's Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City.

In middle school, small moments can reverberate. Sixth grader Michele Farquharson and the students she carpools to Ellicott Mills Middle School with know what it's like to want to be friends with someone, but have that not work out, either because the potential friend is too cool or not cool enough.

Middle school also marks a time of dramatic physical changes. Some kids look barely 12, while others have adult bodies.

As hormones rage, friendships are tested. "In middle school, more kids like each other," explained Amanda Graham, a sixth-grader at Ellicott Mills.

"The popular people have to have a boyfriend or girlfriend," agreed Katie Culp, a sixth grader who is part of the carpool. That can be hard for kids who aren't yet ready to date.

Parents might feel there's nothing they can do to help their children through these difficult years. But Sagarese and Giannetti say middle schoolers need their parents more than ever.

"The myth is they don't want to listen to their parents, they only care what their friends say," Sagarese said. "They want to be with their friends, but they trust their parents."

The goal for parents is not to help your child join the popular crowd.

The authors stress that parents can't give a child a sense of belonging or guarantee popularity.

But parents can help kids understand the social landscape of middle school and give them tools for coping with it.

In fact, the authors contend that children in the popular crowd are not as happy as they appear because they have to work so hard at keeping their edge.

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