Friday, April 13, 2007

Pack mentality and cliques....

Yesterday, I was making the rounds of blog-reading and ran across this post. In it, KC discusses her experience with cliques in school. There are some great comments there, too.

I wanted to explore this a bit ~ and perhaps touch on a bit of my personal experience and why I believe this cliquing up behavior is so destructive. It's not only destructive for kids but adults, too.

When I was growing up, to be perfectly blunt about it, I got a ration of diminishing, devaluing and demeaning comments from my mother on a regular basis. I don't recall any positive statements. If I got a B+, it should have been an A. If I wrote a story, it was okay but should have been better. If I asked for positive reinforcement, her method was to ridicule me so that I wouldn't do it any more. No one in my family ever said, "I love you". It was never said in any context, oblique or overt. In my mother's mind, she probably believed she was just toughening me up or disciplining me. By her own statement, she once said, "Well, maybe I was too critical but I just wanted you to be the best you can be." (That was the understatement of the century!) In her mind, the constant put-downs would make me want to prove her wrong.

It had the opposite effect. I came to believe I wasn't even capable of going to the bathroom without someone else's approval. I came to believe the safest way to live was to be as invisible as possible and simply not do anything at all. It was damaging beyond description and had long term consequences in my life. It affected the choices I made and the direction my life took over the years.

To this day, and I am 55 years old, I still have chronic PTSD from my home experience which then extended to my school experience. One of the things most people don't know about PTSD is that it actually changes brain activity. It's not something one can just "get over". Chemical brain activity changes and becomes embedded. I will always have an exaggerated startle response and will always be unable to be in certain types of environments. That's not to say I can just lay down and not try to help myself though. It means that I must (and have) learned effective ways of dealing with the damage.

In school, I was never included in any clique. I was a loner, not by choice. That was created largely by my inability to interact with others in a healthy way. I didn't have and was never taught the skills.

I came to believe it was my fate ~ and, after all, we can't escape destiny.

So I spent more years doing absolutely nothing, trying to be as invisible as possible. I was afraid to be in public. I got that invisible thing down really well. I learned to keep my mouth shut, my back to the wall, my ass down and my powder dry. I was in enemy territory.

That was my life... for many, many years.

To bring this back to cliques, I believe that kids who can't "fit in" are also the ones who are getting the most garbage at home. Feeling left out on a consistent basis is something that damages a kid's ability to function in the world and her ability to make choices that will enhance life rather than merely survive it. It creates the perception that other people are to be avoided because they are not safe. Ultimately, that kid will become an adult who has no spirit for life, no enjoyment of life.

I know this because I lived it.

And, granted, I was a very sensitive, artistic, philosophical and gentle kid who should have been protected and encouraged to find my voice within the context of that personality structure. That perhaps on some levels would have made me a bit more difficult to parent. There should be helpers especially for parents, too.

I have only found a voice for that sensitive, artistic, philosophical and gentle individual in the past ten years or so. That came after years and years of floundering like a fish taken from the river, many years of therapy and a root anger that finally arose in me... the root anger that said, "I'm not living this way any more! I'd rather be dead!"

We get to that point, you know? It's that pivotal moment when we decide whether we are going to live or die. I chose to live. Life force trumped the desire to die.

It's been a long hard road. I'm not going to sit here and write platitudes like "it was all for the best." It wasn't. There was nothing good about it. I didn't turn lemons into lemonade. I just learned to live with the lemons. There are remnants that will be with me for the rest of my life. Just the same, I've learned ways to cope with that. I have chosen to have a life worth living in spite of them. It was grueling and difficult ~ but I found those ways with the help of others wiser and more educated in those areas. One of the outcomes of that is that no one, anywhere, at any time, will ever take my voice away again.

To those who find cliques and exclusion to be something relatively harmless and a normal passage of youth, I would say that you are dead wrong. It not only creates problems for those who are allowed to engage that behavior and grow up to have a permanent sense of entitlement ~ but it is something far more than a right of passage for those who are the objects of the bullying, the exclusion, the being left out, the fun-making, the name calling and the ridiculing. It's worse than murder because the target survives ~ with a dead spirit.

I believe it is the responsibility of the culture, of the teachers, of the parents and all others who supervise children to make a clear and strong statement that the behavior is unacceptable. Children need to be told that it is wrong, not that it is a right of passage and that they just have to learn to live with it. By taking that attitude, the adults in charge become as much perpetrators as the kids themselves. I'd like to think we human beings have evolved past "Lord of the Flies" social behavior. If we haven't ~ well ~ I'm probably all wrong about a lot of things.

Societies form mores and values that all theoretically share. That is the purpose of socialization and acculturation. Those mores and values are taught in childhood and updated and refined as adults. We can always change. We all have that power. In fact, that is the only true power... the power to change.

It's time we do.




Tabba said...

Reading this was like reading something I have written myself. You don't know what it means to read this - that you have put into words what I have long been trying to say, but just never could.

I find that as an adult I still struggle with these things - the cliques, group settings, etc.

Well done & thank you for sharing.

Anvilcloud said...

I'm sure that withholding praise etc was a school of thought at one time. I think my mother subscribed to it a bit but was certainly not as over-the-top as yours.

Caro said...

It all begins in how you are made to feel in your own family. Parents need support and guidance. What they usually get however, is a good dose of judgment... Once again I am made to think how important it is, imperative really, to reinforce and restore the idea of community in our culture. For the wisdom and council of the elderly, for the support when you simply can't take it any more, for the socialisation of the children etc... Fantastic post.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh...excellent topic, and fabulous exploration of it. I agree with much. I wish I had time to adequately convey all I think. I'll have to come back.

Thailand Gal said...

Tabba, you know.. I suspect that could be said for a lot of people. There's shame attached to it in this culture. It's something to be swept under the rug and concealed. Heck, I'm writing an anonymous blog out on the impersonal internet. I can write about these things and not run into readers at Target this afternoon. That really does free all of us up to discuss things that might otherwise be hidden.


Anvil, I remember that being taught in a vague way, that to give children too much praise would "spoil" them. In a sense, praising kids for every move they make could have that affect... but tearing a forming, growing child to shreds is just plain evil. Rooted in Calvinism, I'm sure.


Caro, needless to say, I agree with you. :) Kids don't come with little instruction manuals. Using individualism as an excuse for failing to take advantage of the community around us not only potentially harms children, but makes parents' lives much more difficult than they need to be.


Julie, I hope you will come back. I respect your thoughts on these matters and would love to read them. :)




Bob said...

everywhere I've ever lived, there were cliques. Schools had the jocks, the brains, the band, the office aides, etc. Adults had church, the country club, the Lions club, etc. or just plain rich, well-off, or poor. We are social animals and search out like-minded individuals. We initially banded together for protection & food-gathering. In the middle ages it was the nobility or serfdom. The rise of the middle class during the renaissance gave birth to the democratic notion that you could change your class/status - via the purse. Today, here in the US, classes/cliques are based mostly on income, but there are others too. Universities have administrative staff, tenured professors, non-tenured and T.A.s. It is pervasive. Instinctually we derive status and self-worth from what cliques we belong to. I am not defending this behavior, but making the observation.

how do you overcome the negative aspects of cliquishness? Certainly kids can be vicious buggers when in groups. It seems that it was ever so. I agree that probably the main way is to teach our children to accept and like themselves for who they are. If they have self-confidence they won't be so quick to take to heart what others ascribe to them. We can also teach them to treat others with kindness and respect.

I seem to be rambling on, so I'll stop.

Thailand Gal said...

Bob, you're not rambling. I'm appreciating your thoughts. :)

You are saying something that is true in one sense ~ not in another.

We all enjoy our likeminded friends, I'm sure. I do. But there are also people who may not be in my immediate circle who I enjoy equally. There are some people I know who know me only because of our common love of Thailand. There are others I know because of my interest in gardening.. or reading... or a particular type of music.

Than in itself is good. That's community.

What I argue against is the pack mentality, the view that the only way I can be a friend of yours is to have a common enemy ~ and to randomly select that enemy or attack the weakest.

I believe we can have our close friends and still be kind to others. I believe children have the right to go to school without being abused by other students. I believe children can be taught that it is morally wrong to pick on one person until there's nothing left but bones and guts.

I believe that.

I do.



The Atavist said...

Powerful story, as usual, Chani. I am trying to teach my son to be inclusive and tolerant, but it is difficult since some of his teenage peers are sometimes anything but inclusive and tolerant. It's those cliques you talk about. It is also the scorn and intolerance that kids learn from their parents for anyone who is the slightest bit different.

In elementary school, there was a classmate of mine who didn't quite fit in. I was probably only one of two kids who ever communicated with him regularly, or extended a kind word. I came to school one morning to find that he had hanged himself the night before. He was tired of being ostracized and criticized.

That bothered me in a huge way. I encourage my son to take kids that don't really 'fit in' under his wing and try to include them in group activities with his friends. That is not as easy as it should be. If others balk at having 'weirdos' intrude on their clique, it ain't gonna happen.

It's sad. It again reflects back to the parents and how well or how poorly they teach their children.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I have been raised in a calvinist, or even worse, jansenist education, and our mother used to make us feel constantly guilty. And I have been quite miserable when , as a teen , I made efforts to belong to cliques via youth camps for instance, what I never managed to. Horrible memories.
But I think it depends also on the character. While our older son, who was then a pretty shy and lonely boy, was also miserable when we tried to have him in scouts camps, the two other sons have been quite happy there.
I wonder also about the positive attitude. When I have been 50, I decided to learn horse riding, an old dream. The young teacher used to tell me : fine, you are doing very well, when I thought that the horse was doing well, I was just following him, even though I was flattered by her encouragements.
So, really, I don't know what is the part of teachers or parents responsibility here. Well, I guess I am confused !
As to "Lord of the flies" that I used to read with my students, to make them aware of who they are really, I think it is unfortunately a human "normal" attitude that we have to fight, and I doubt it will ever change.

slouching mom said...

This is spot on. And you've made me look at bullying and being bullied in an entirely new way. That the kids who are outcasts could be so because of what has or has not happened at home? That is a fascinating hypothesis, and it is resonating deeply with me. It meshes with my own grade-school experiences very well.

Thank you for opening my eyes to a new perspective.

And was this ever beautifully written!

Hel said...

I cannot agrre more. Children should be taught kindness rather than accountancy.

Bob said...

Chani - I totally agree that we can and need to learn that we don't gain self-worth by denigrating others. That is what turns cliques into packs. Most kids, if you isolate them from the "pack", will acknowledge that picking on others is wrong. It's when they get together that negative behavior is reinforced.

I guess what I'm saying that people naturally congregate and that the group dynamic unfortunately has a propensity towards negative behavior. Kids have to be taught to overcome this, as Sieg mentions above he has done with his son.

meno said...

Just one teeny tiny thought from me. I have found that any desire i ever had to belong to a clique has diminished to vanishing as i age. I'm just not interested.

Not that i always felt this way. I might have wanted to belong once, but i didn't. Now i don't want to.

Suzy said...

Oh, my.
You write about this with a terrible beauty. As a kid I was always one of those kids on the cusp -- not super popular, but not an outcast either. Where I have experienced the most clique-ishness has been in my family of origin, as an adult. It was very painful to see how it impacted our oldest daughter when she was a little girl. We were able to disengage and protect her, but I know she carries scars. And every time I think it's in the past and open up to them (2 brothers and their wives in particular) I get hurt all over again. The thing is, in a crisis they are great -- loving and nurturing. But day to day? Uh-uh.

As a teacher of young children, I am fond of saying that I see teaching as a radical act. What I most often mean by that is that I see my primary function as conveying a sense of worth, respect, dignity, and love to each and every child in my care. And what I model, the other kids pick up, and people frequently tell me that my class is "different." They tend to be kind. They value the community that we build and share. That is something of which I am very proud. I hope that I am giving them a touchstone for whatever happens outside of school and whatever lies ahead.

Chani, I wish I could have done the same for you.

KGMom said...

You write out of deep personal pain, but you also write as a survivor.
Exclusion is a terrible thing--cliques are very hurtful.
What else is there to say.

Laurie said...

I am sorry for the pain you've suffered in your life, Chani. That you've had to learn to live with lemons makes my heart ache.

As always, you've written a thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing what you went through. It may make a difference for someone else.

jen said...

i agree w/ meno - i've been so much less concerned about "fitting in" than i used to be. i'd imagine a healthy do-over if i had the chance to regress.

lovely post. i read it earlier at work and then came back to it now too.

Courtney said...

I second everything you have said. The most horrible part is not just learning to live with lemons, but to accept and expect them. I also find it very difficult to find my humanity and compassion after being so put-down and so angry for so long.

Tabba said...

Chani - I re-read my comment & it sounded so, so...bad. What I was simply trying to say, but didn't was: You took the words out of my mouth.
And the way you write. So eloquent.

QT said...

Chani - I read this at work and had to come back to it because there was just too much going on.

The way I was raised made me an outcast of sorts. I grew up in a very protective house and was not allowed to do much with friends. So they stopped inviting me. I was always pushed to be my best as far as school was concerned, but in a very healthy way. I was told "I love you" every day by both parents, multiple times a day, with hugs and kisses that I shoved aside as a teen.

Yet - I remain a loner. My loner status caused me to develop ideas and a point of view about life in general that I do not encounter very often. And you know what? I am ok with it most of the time. Sometimes I get lonely, but all that training of being alone as a child has prepared me for being alone now.

As for what others say and do, I have never cared, really. I think there was a time when I am sure I did and it probably hurt my feelings, but it is not at the forefront of my mind. I am not a very sensitive person towards others, tho, as you seem to be. That can be viewed as pro, as in this case - but mostly it is a very large con.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Some of what you've written about your home life as a child sounds a lot like mine. I thought my parents hated me while my older brother was worshiped. Needless to say, he was aware of his favored status and took full advantage of it.

Strangely, though, I was well-liked in school, although I was sure that my popularity was because people felt sorry for me.

My parents told me that I was homely while strangers said I was beautiful. At home, I was not allowed to speak at meals because I was too stupid, yet I was a radio quiz kid who skipped two grades in school.

I was confused. My parents insisted that they were always right, yet my experiences in the world belied much of what they said about me.

I responded to my inability to fit in at home by trying to be invisible, too. And to this day, when I feel anxious in social situations, I revert to invisibility.

Needless to say, I did not raise my own children the way I was raised. I, too, never heard the words, "I love you" from any member of my family, but my children hear it constantly from me, and I from them.

I feel a lot of sadness that I have not accomplished what I now know I had the ability to do in my life because I was so afraid of failure. I also was in many relationships in which I was badly treated because it was what I thought I deserved and even served as a kind of uncomfortable comfort zone.

In many ways, I feel like the walking wounded. But I AM still walking, and that is something to celebrate.

Thank you for another superb post, Chani.

KC said...

This is so insightful and I always find your words so wise. You give an important perspective to consider- enlightening, really. I'm so glad you made it out of the darkness your chidhood cast.

Julie Pippert said...

Ah Chani, I've written so many replies to this and they've goen in so many directions. Let's see if this one takes.

Like you, I was raised with the positive, and with the negative. It has ruined so much for me.

Like many children, I came with a belief in myself, a sense of accomplishment that somehow I never lost. However, I lost the belief that others viewed me and what I did as worthy. I blustered through life for so many years with bravado. It brought much trouble.

After a certain point I believed it wasn't okay to be me, that I needed to be who others thougt I ought to be, and I spent my pre-teen years and on following that path.

I wanted to belong somewhere, be approved of somewhere. It's true...if kids don't get it at home, they seek it elsewhere. It can be good, or bad. I lucked out, usually, and found mostly good. But I also lost myself.

The power of a clique is to provide a pack, which can be good. As you said in your comment above, community is wonderful. I was initially confused that you thought any and all cliques were terrible based on what you wrote, "To those who find cliques and exclusion to be something relatively harmless and a normal passage of youth, I would say that you are dead wrong." I think grouping is a natural state, and people will typically tend to clump with those they like and are like.

I agree that it can't, however, become like a gang. I can't go along with groupthink, and I don't think anyone should have to as a condition of belonging. If the clique turns itself into an attack unit---offensive, not even defensive---then it has devolved into something terrible.

And I completely agree: this is what we should tell children.

Cliques have a two-fold benefit and a two-fold problem. Since we're on to the problem: (1) (from the inside) it can get to be established to the point of at least seeming exclusionary and (2) (from the outside) it can seem exclusionary.

As someone who moved very frequently growing up (every 2 years) I became used to being a battering ram against cliques. There were times and places nothing could breech the walls, but other times it was useful because the group was open, it just appeared closed but members were actually welcoming. Still, in either case, the community has become something too cliquish, if you KWIM.

And the former case, the actual closed times or times that members disagreed about space for new people...that's when some of the worst behavior can happen.

I do my best to teach my kids to be open and kind. My eldest has reached the age when the comments start. Next couple of years it should begin in earnest, I'm sure. I hope we're ready.

capacious said...

This was really good. It makes me stronger in my resolve to talk to my own children about this every time they say they don't like someone or another child is "weird." Sometimes it seems like an uphill battle, explaining to them that an unpleasant child might be unpleasant for a REASON, or that a child who bugs them relentlessly might desperately want to be friends. I encourage them to try to understand, to be kind, to include.