Social Groups Rule the Playground

– By Sharon Ashton and Raksha Dave-Gates (Counselling Psychologists)

Fitting in can be a tremendous pressure whether you are five, fifteen, or an adult. As social beings, we tend to form groups and hierarchies. Whether we like it or not, these groups or cliques begin early and with them, come lessons about friendship, support, power and privilege, and rejection and isolation.

Rosalind Wiseman, in herbook, Queen bees & Wannabes, helps us to enter the social world of our children – to see their experience in their social circle through their eyes. Although her book primarily focuses on adolescent girls, the information is just as useful for earlier stages in development and for understanding the social world of boys. She provides insights into roles within social groups and strategies for parents to help their children manage the social task of fitting in.

Wiseman suggests that roles among children arise regardless of membership in a “popular” group andthat these roles can change. For girls, the group typically includes a “Queenbee”, “Sidekick”, “Banker”, “Floater”, “Tornbystander”, “Pleaser/Wannabe/Messenger”, and “Target”. Specifically, a Queen bee gains power through charisma, charm, weakeningfriendships between others, and manipulation. The Sidekick is next inline. She is likely to gain power through her alliance with the Queen bee andwill support her without question. The Banker creates chaos in thesocial circle. Gaining the trust of other girls, she banks valuable information and then uses the information to cause conflict. The Floater moves easily between cliques. She has high self-esteem, avoids conflicts but can stand up to the Queen bee. The Torn bystander is often conflicted between doing the right thing and loyalty to the clique. The Pleaser/Wannabe/Messenger is generally the one who does whatever it takes tobe in positive favour of the Queen bee. She observes those in power closely. The Target is the victim. She may be in or outside the clique. She is lowest on the totem pole and often the target of social bullying through teasing or gossiping.

Fitting in can be just as challenging for boys. Their social hierarchy also includes typical roles – “Leader”, “Flunkie”, “Thug”, and “Get Wit’s” (Groupies). As with the Queen bee, the Leader is the one in charge. The Flunkie is often the most obvious in his attempts to fit into the group. He islikely to do the bidding of the group. The Thug uses physical force or threat as a source for power and means to fit in the group. The Get Wit’s are the boys that are viewed by the adults are doing well but often feellike they are not getting the respect and attention they want from their peers. These boys tend to tag along with the group.

It is essential forparents to recognize these roles early and understand the social pressures thatengage our children in these hierarchies. The complex and multilayered schoolsocial system that our children create and participate in challenges us to develop equally sophisticated strategies to assist them to fit in. Encouraging children to ignore social or verbal bullying, teaching them come-back lines, ordirecting them to the teacher are no longer the only effective coping strategiesfor children. Strategies that aim to uncover and understand your child’s social world are likely to be more effective. Wiseman suggests, invite your child todraw a map of the school and where groups typically hang out, open a conversation based on observations of other children and their roles and theninvite reflection on your child’s role, listen actively, and stay calm and casual. Additionally, we recommend, reflect on your own social circle and your role within it (as a child and now). Observe your own family roles. Does your child play the same role in the family as in the school?