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Closing Down Cliques

My children and I often reserve the time right after dinner to deal with problematic homework or music practice. It can be a bit of a wrangle, no question. But the time also yields triumphs that send us to bed smug with our understanding of the problem at hand.

Now, though, we're tackling an issue that seems more complex than fractions or eighth notes: the "circle of friends" conundrum.

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The case involves my sixth-grader, Matthew, who tends to move easily among his peers. Matthew's been buddies with "Joey" for a while. Now there's a new friend, "Bob." The problem: the two don't mix well. To Matthew, they're both good friends he doesn't want to lose. But in the fluid groupings that shape his day, the dynamics are getting tricky, rippling into lunchtime and team projects.

It's a big deal. Big enough that Matthew is quick to suggest that a move - out of town - is the simplest solution.

As David Holmstrom highlights in his story on cliques, the "who's in, who's out" game plays out in an array of forms. Concerns about fitting in can be particularly acute now, as kids enter the final lap of the school year and ponder team tryouts and the spring dance.

"Can't you all just get along?" is a tempting plea from parents. But educators and students themselves are raising the same question - with the goal of charting a course around what is too often labeled a rite of passage.

Many schools now have programs to help kids better negotiate friendships and associations. Students are chipping in, too. Our story tells of an eighth-grader in Mississippi who pulled 500 other students into building bridges - including one between a football player and a disabled student he taught to sing.

Some programs are on the fluffy side, it's true, and leave you wondering if the time is better spent on academics. The message may soon get lost if not reinforced by parents and other adults. But it can't hurt to send kids a message that they can look beyond cliques.

Last week, at Matthew's "graduation" from a sixth-grade antidrug program, the kids belted out "Stand By Me" and "I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends." They threw their arms around each other as they danced on stage. The message sent by these old songs: We're in this together.

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Some parents noted that we would have thought the show was pretty corny when we were 12. But there we were, adults from many walks of life, kids with a bunch of different interests, all moving to the same beat, and it felt just fine.

* Write to: Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA, 02115 or e-mail

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