The new school year comes with very real questions and concerns about friends and fitting in for parents of teens, as well as many teens. It's part and parcel for any kid that just moved to the area, but it's also part of the remixing that occurs when multiple elementary schools feed into one middle school and when several middle schools feed into a single high school.
When adults think about teen cliques, they fall back on the notion that cliques are bad. And they certainly can be: cliques create boundaries to adolescent friendships and can promote bad behavior. Movies like Mean Girls and Heathers have very clear roots in reality. Those cliques also have the power to contribute to boys' sexual misconduct, as we've seen in real life cases like Steubenville, OH and Maryville, MO.
But cliques aren't all bad. Seriously, they're not. If they were, why would they be so common? Almost every American middle and high school has them. Schools with more than 300 students per grade are practically guaranteed to have them. Many smaller schools have them too. It's not like teachers and administrators force kids to join cliques; this isn't Hogwarts with its sorting hat. Yet, teens create and re-create these groups every year. Here are a few of the benefits adolescents get from cliques, moving from the most personal and smallest level out to the broadest functions of cliques.
Whatever the clique is based on -- popularity, sports, nerd-ness -- it provides a way for kids with similar interests to find each other and tells them whose company they'll probably enjoy. Although shared interests and spending time together aren't the only reasons two kids become friends, they are important first steps.
Every clique needs a leader. It also needs an organizer, a peacemaker and someone to be the butt of the joke, among other roles. Being part of a clique allows a teen to practice one of these roles. As roles shift or the group's membership changes over time, a teen's place within the group can change too. Rosalind Wiseman's book Masterminds and Wingmen describes these roles in detail (but using different terms).
Part of being an American teenager means some effort to answer the question "who am I?" Being a member of a particular clique provides one answer to that: you're a popular kid, a jock, a nerd, whatever. That clique and that identity come with a stereotype that a teen can adopt to see how well they like it. The stereotype might fit them perfectly, or they might find that the stereotype is mostly OK, but some parts are uncomfortable. If they don't follow enough of the stereotype, then they'll be seen as a poser and may be forced out of the clique. Whether you think conforming to a stereotype is good or bad, it is a decidedly practical way for a teen to figure out what he or she likes, what's comfortable, and what's not. Today's teens have a broad swath of values, roles and activities -- legal and illegal -- to choose from. Having a list (stereotype) that points you towards some things and away from others can be very helpful.
Some cliques are more popular than others. Knowing which clique you're in, and thus where you fit into the larger social hierarchy, is an important life skill. As a (former?) nerd, I'll admit it's not always a pleasant experience, but pleasant and important aren't the same thing. That social hierarchy creates boundaries about who a teen can spend time with, date, etc. Part of the appeal of both The Breakfast Club and High School Musical is watching the kids explore those boundaries. In fact, the first big production number -- and one of the major plot lines -- in HSM is all about crossing those lines. As adults, most of us get the (unpleasant?) opportunity to revisit this social structure; if you work in a large company, you'll almost certainly run into the same group dynamics.
As adults, we need to recognize the truth: Cliques have their costs and their benefits, just like most things in the lives of our teens. Instead of warning our teens to beware of cliques, we parents need to recognize the reason they exist and the benefits they provide so we can talk about both the benefits and the risks.