The jocks. The nerds. The popular girls. Everyone who has ever attended school knows about cliques—social groups that are so often a source of angst and conflict in the lives of children and adolescents.
Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist, former seventh-grade teacher and author of the book Best Friends, Worst Enemies, argues that parents don't understand the importance of friendships in childhood and the deep emotional impact these relationships have on their children's lives.
Dr. Thompson believes that, by nature, people are social beings who need to be part of a group. In a group setting, children learn values such as loyalty, leadership and what it means to be a good friend. And, there is power in numbers—groups are more influential than an individual alone.
About 80 percent of children are part of a social group at school. Most groups begin forming around fourth grade, but some can develop as early as kindergarten. By eighth grade, most children have established strict boundaries of the group.
While becoming a part of a clique is appealing, it can also have its dangers. Sometimes members of a group are not really friends; rather, they rely on each other for an identity. There is often a ringleader who defines the boundaries and has the power to influence others to do good or bad.
According to Dr. Thompson, a child may be a "good person" as an individual, but group dynamics lead to what is known in psychology as a "risky shift." This change happens when children get together in a group and devise a mischievous plan that they wouldn't be able to come up with on their own as individuals. Even though a child may feel bad insulting or hurting other children, he or she might be influenced by the power dynamics of the group.