Break up those cliques Print
Youth Column
Written by Karen Osborne, Catholic News Service   
Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Is your high school big or small? Do you know everyone or feel like you don't know anyone? Did you know that the size of your school may actually be indirectly responsible for how your social life is going?

Recently, a Stanford University professor named Dan McFarland completed a study where he examined the formation of cliques and friendships in large and small high schools. He discovered that large schools, like the one I attended, tended to have a lot of cliques based around what he called "external" criteria, such as race, money, what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of car you drive.

At my high school, groups of students who hung out together looked, talked, and lived a lot like one another. At my school, you never saw the black students sitting with their white peers, even though there was never any overt racism. That's the way things were.

Students in smaller schools, according to the study, tend to have friendships based on academics and activities. When I taught at a small high school, I noticed that the cliques were based around the school band, the football team and the art room. Race and economic background weren't as important.

McFarland found that the smaller and stricter the school, students had a more racially and socioeconomically diverse group of friends. (This also depended, too, on the location of the school.) As an adult, having friends from diverse backgrounds and being able to positively deal with all sorts of people is crucial to your future career or industry.

Wanting to form a clique is normal human behavior. In crowds, humans tend to band together with people who are similar. Because of the safety we find in what's familiar, cliques often make us feel more comfortable in a world that can often be frightening.

But tribal behavior also leads to negative things, especially in the modern world where diversity is important. History is full of conflicts between countries, tribes and groups of people because of simple differences.

In our society, this behavior starts in high school. That's when we start to form cliques. That's why it's important for teens to be "clique busters" and create friendships with people who live different kinds of lives.

One way to do this is to try a new intramural sport or club. Invite people you know from other cliques to parties or gatherings. Some schools sponsor "mixer" lunches, where students are required to eat with a set of new people. If you don't already have them, suggest the activity to the administration. Be inclusive in what you do: Invite all types of people to experience the clubs and activities you think are great, and don't exclude anyone.

In the end, I don't think the size of the school matters as much as the attitudes and practices of the people in it. If you make an attempt to be more welcoming, more inclusive and tolerant, others may do the same. This may lead to the kind of school and environment that welcomes everyone and creates successful leaders.

Karen Dietlein Osborne contributes to “Coming of Age,” a CNS column series for and about youth. She is a staff writer for the Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y..


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