Taunts and jeers can hurt kids. Unfortunately, this behavior isn’t confined to the playground or schoolyard — it happens in churches, too…
Sarah ran out of the classroom, tears streaming down her face. The sting of the girls’ taunts and jeers cut her to the quick. Why were they so cruel? All she longed for was their friendship; she just wanted so desperately to be included and accepted. After all, isn’t church the one place where everyone is accepted?
It should be. But unfortunately, scenes like this do happen in churches — they’re not confined to the playground or schoolyard. The hurtful results of cliques can happen in the Sunday school room, on a youth group outing, or at a church event.
Kids long — and need — to be accepted, to be included, and to have a sense of self-worth and value. When kids are ostracized or shunned by other kids, their needs aren’t met and the effects are damaging-oftentimes devastating. The shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, serves this nation as a grim reminder of that extreme.
In any friendship group, kids find friends and peer-acceptance. That’s normal. Yet friendship groups have a tendency to evolve into cliques. What, exactly, makes a clique different from just a group of friends?
“Exclusivity,” according to Ellen Lumpkin, elementary guidance counselor at Knightsville Elementary School in Summerville, South Carolina. “If a group excludes others based on their defined parameters, it’s a clique.”
Having served as a Christian educator, schoolteacher, and school psychologist for more than 20 years, Ellen has repeatedly seen these patterns in upper-elementary-age children who have deep needs.
“For kids whose basic needs are met at home, church, and through healthy activities, cliques don’t have much influence,” Ellen reports. “They’ll choose friends based on similar values and interests.”
For kids whose basic needs such as safety, love, belonging, and value aren’t met, cliques hold a strong attraction.
“Kids learn quickly that operating within a clique provides certain benefits while meeting some of those basic needs,” states Ellen. “It’s almost as if kids don’t see that the exclusion of others, teasing, and bullying are wrong. The pull of the group has become so strong that kids get swept along with what’s going on. All of this happens at an age when children turn more to their peers for identity and less to their parents.”
Defining the Problem
The formation of cliques doesn’t happen overnight. Their evolvement parallels the social development of children.
The Early Stage
Cliques begin to evolve around the fourth grade. Friendship groups are very fluid at this stage, as membership is not yet clearly defined. That explains the phenomenon of shifting alliances-friends one day, enemies the next.
It’s through this process that cliques are formed. Cliques are typically comprised of girls because they place a higher value on social relationships than boys do, according to John Hoover, professor of teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota and the director of the Bureau of Educational Services and Applied Research.
“Girls have a much higher need for social affiliation,” John reports. Girls realize through experimentation that operating within a group gives them social power and a contrived sense of self.
The Peaking Stage
Cliques peak during the middle school and early high school years and take on a more vicious nature. Bullying becomes more prevalent and more intense. At this age, kids’ basic need for unconditional, positive acceptance is a driving force. They’re struggling to find their place in the social structure.
The good news is that cliques typically tend to dissipate later on in high school. The better news is that we can disciple kids to stay clique-free now.
Breaking the Bonds
Children use many techniques to maintain power in cliques such as carefully screening potential members, personally inviting some children at the exclusion of others, and harassment of those individuals on the outside. This can happen in a church setting, too, such as a Sunday school class or youth group.
Todd, a sixth-grader, was a newcomer to the church. Because he was shy by nature, he didn’t feel like he fit in with the youth group. After class one Sunday, the kids were dismissed for general recreation time, but no one included Todd. The kids went off into their cliques, and there, standing alone on the sidelines, was Todd. That was his last visit to the youth group.
What can you do if the kids in your church are cliquish?
- Keep watch. Notice who your kids interact with. Do they stick to the same group, or do they blend with all the kids?
- Mix kids up. When playing games or activities, help kids get to know each other by separating them so they’re not in the same group or with their friends every time.
- Talk honestly. If you notice a group is being cliquish or you hear of kids being cliquish at school, pull them aside and talk to them about their behavior. Maybe they don’t realize they’re being cliquish, and a gentle reminder to include others will do the trick. If this doesn’t stop the problem, notify their parents and work together to reach a solution.
- Use positive reinforcement. Praise children when you see them act in ways that are kind, loving, and inclusive to others. Offer specific praise such as, “You were compassionate to notice that Billy was left out of the conversation. That was kind of you to include him.”
Showing the Way
Disciple kids to be inclusive and welcoming of others. Train kids to understand how God expects us to treat others.
One children’s ministry leader shared this experience. “Lanie, a fourth-grade girl in our small group, smelled really bad when she came to church. Susie, one of our ‘upstanding’ girls was so sickened by it that she wouldn’t stay in the small group with Lanie. The cool thing was that the rest of the group loved Lanie and didn’t follow Susie’s lead.”
This was a group that had been taught to show love and acceptance. They lived out Jesus’ commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
Elementary-age kids often lack the confidence to interact with others. Because their need for love and acceptance is so strong, it’s compounded with a fear of rejection. Help kids gain confidence in their socialization with these ideas.
1. Equip. Use this acrostic tool as a reminder of the questions kids can use to spark conversation when meeting new kids.
F-amily: What’s your family like?
I-nterests: What do you like to do for fun?
R-eligious background: Where do you go to church? If a child has a home church, instruct kids to follow up with, “Tell me about your church.” If a child doesn’t have a church, teach children to invite him or her to visit their church.
E-ducation: What’s your school like?
To give kids practice using this tool, form pairs and have partners role play these techniques during Sunday school. Then encourage kids to try the questions at school and other settings where they might meet new kids. To reinforce this technique, give kids an opportunity each week to share about times during the week that they were “FIREd-up” and met someone new.
2. Challenge. Provide opportunities for kids to move out of their comfort zones. One Sunday morning, arrange for older elementary kids to visit other Sunday schools at churches in your community. Immediately afterward, bring kids back to your church for a time of debriefing and sharing. Have groups of kids discuss these questions.
- How did you feel as the newcomer?
- Did you receive a warm welcome?
- Was it uncomfortable to be the newcomer? Why or why not?
- How can you use this experience to help new kids who visit our church feel more welcome?
Then have the kids discuss their insights with the whole class and brainstorm ways to help visitors feel more welcome.
3. Reinforce. Train kids according to these core values. Reinforce God’s expectations for our behavior.
- Respect. Teach kids to accept others’ differences. Help kids build relationships with others from varying backgrounds through the use of small groups.
- Responsibility. Teach kids that we have a responsibility as children of God to love others through our words and actions. Provide kids opportunities to serve others through outreach activities and missions projects.
- Reverence. Teach kids to take respect a step further by honoring others as Christ did. Teach kids about forgiveness and encourage them to reach out to kids who may have bullied or hurt them.
4. Instruct. Show kids what the Bible teaches about the qualities of friends, using these passages: Proverbs 11:13; 12:26; 17:17; 22:24-25; and 26:18-19. Have groups of kids read the Scripture verses. Then have groups create lists of friendship characteristics that are pleasing to God. Hang the lists in your Sunday school room as a reminder.
Above all, teach children that as members of the body of Christ, we don’t need cliques. Jesus is the greatest friend we’ll ever have. His love and friendship are what we need most.
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:12-15)
John Hoover is a leading child-aggression expert and has conducted research in the area of bullying for more than 11 years. Here are some of the statistics John has discovered in his research.
- Teasing and verbal harassment are the primary forms of bullying across all ages and genders.
- Ten percent of all children are chronically picked on by their peers — severely enough to be traumatized by it.
- Bullies tend to have above-average physical strength.
- Most bullies have either average or above-average self-esteem.
- Bullies look for victims that are socially acceptable to pick on, have below-average physical strength, and are easily intimidated.
According to John, we need to teach kids assertiveness skills to protect them from bullies. A bully will back off 75 to 80 percent of the time if a youngster assertively says, “Stop that! I don’t like it when you tease me, and I want you to quit it! If you don’t quit it, I’m going to tell an adult!” For timid children, that requires social-skills training.
Encourage children to get help from an adult if they’re being bullied. The mythology among kids is that if you involve an adult, the bullying will get worse, but the evidence doesn’t support that.
“We need to acknowledge to kids that this hurts, and we’re going to be there and be supportive,” says John. “I think that’s particularly incumbent for adults who profess to believe in the lordship of Christ. We’re talking about regard for another human being’s hurt. It’s a special ministry to be an adult who can be sensitive to that kind of hurting in a child.”