Practice of exclusion rampant among teens

As time goes by we may forget the date of a wedding anniversary or the street address of our first house. Little, though, burns into our memories like the time Sally (or Joe or Amanda or Chester) said: “I'm having my eighth (or sixth or ninth) birthday party, and I'm not inviting you!'”

Just about everyone can vividly recall the sting of being left out — of a party, a game, a club — as a child. But that pain is nothing compared with the life-shaping effects of consistent peer-rejection throughout childhood.
Rejection and bullying are white-hot topics, owing at least in part to horrific incidents such as the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999 and the killings at Santana High School in Southern California three years ago this month. In both cases — and others across the nation — the perpetrators were described as “loners,” kids for whom minor rejections such as party invitations that didn't come snowballed into full-scale, sustained ostracism from a peer group.

New books and studies on the topic are released regularly. Rejection and bullying are now nearly constant themes for school psychologists and guidance counselors. As parents, it may be hard to know when to worry and when to roll with what, years ago, often was thought to build character and prepare children for the realities of life.

At some point, in some fashion, “there is no child who hasn't been rejected,” says Sunwolf, a professor of communications at Santa Clara University who uses only that name. She and Laura Leets, acting assistant professor in Stanford University's department of communication, have just published a study of the social dynamics of rejection among 682 adolescents in South Bay high schools. Their research, published in the December 2003 issue of ``The Journal of Language and Social Psychology,'' quantifies the degree to which children participate in excluding others because they are afraid that, if they don't, they also will become outcasts.

In the Sunwolf-Leets study, almost 80 percent of the 13- to 19-year-olds said they had failed to speak out against the exclusion of another child who wanted to be included. The authors have dubbed this familiar phenomenon “communication paralysis.” The children and the schools they attended were not identified in the study.

That rejection is “contagious,” as the authors call it, may not come as a surprise to teachers and parents who know it is true — either anecdotally or through their own life experience. But the study is the first to interview adolescents in depth about such intergroup communication and to reveal the pervasiveness of the practice. It also provides insight into the problem and makes a strong argument for parent and teacher intervention. Sunwolf also hopes it promotes more research into the topic.

What can parents and teachers take away from this study?
“Parents, teachers, coaches and administrators . . . have a major role to play in setting a tone for mutual respect and responsibility for our young people. Adults need to be reminded that adolescent and childhood peer culture has the tendency toward cruelty. The experience of being humiliated, degraded, unattractive and disrespected is commonplace for our youth,” says Leets.

“We need to emphasize to young people that self- and other-respect is based on choice and thoughtful reflection. It is never acceptable to be humiliated or to humiliate others. This is especially important given that attention to dignity and the related central values and moral principles are not easy to find in the larger society,”' Leets adds.

Sunwolf and Leets support the ideas of Vivian Paley, who has been awarded a MacArthur “genius”' grant for her studies with children. Paley's most famous book is “You Can't Say You Can't Play,” in which she describes an experiment about inclusion and exclusion with her kindergartners. Paley instituted a rule that her kindergartners were not permitted to say those words or exclude any playmates from activities. Paley had been told by fourth-graders in the school that her rule was good, but that it had to be started in kindergarten, before practices become ingrained.

School psychologists and counselors around the nation agree, but some wonder if we aren't becoming too protective.

Melanie Killen says that a certain amount of rejection is a fact of life and that facing it can build resilience and character. Killen is a professor of human development and associate director for the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland.

Reacting to information that some schools now have written guidelines insisting that every child in a class be invited to a birthday party, Killen says, “I think that's rather silly.” “Another part of developing friendships is personal choice and autonomy. It's something kids feel very strongly about and recognize from about 3 years of age. It's deeply rooted, choosing who you want to be friends with,'” she says.

“Rejection and dealing with it are part of healthy development. Children have to expect rejection from peers, have to work it out on their own terms,” Killen says. She adds that it's important to make distinctions between aggressive, constant rejection or bullying and simply picking and choosing.

“Rejecting teaches them how to discriminate,” which (despite the connotation of the word) is a necessary skill, Killen says. In other words, “you have to realize that you can't marry everybody,” that not everybody is going to like you and that you must respect, but you don't have to like, everybody.

“All children face these rejections or conflicts throughout their lives. I've found that the important people in their lives can help them to cope with these situations by talking through them and setting a stage for what you can do next time.”

Others agree.
“Parents and guardians have a huge job in helping kids socialize well and cope with life's everyday dilemmas. But schools also serve as a support system for kids to build coping skills. For the majority of kids, this works; for others, it is much more complicated,” says Rose DuMont, program specialist in the Campbell Union High School District, a school psychologist for 20 years and past president of the California Association of School Psychologists.

Michael Josephson, who founded the Character Counts! Coalition, a California-based program that operates in schools throughout the United States, emphasizes kindness as a building block. Yet, he concedes, “when we act in good faith and without malice, we're simply not responsible for the way others feel.”

Killen's conclusions don't really conflict with the kindness credos of Paley or Josephson, or the concerns of Sunwolf and Leets. “Parents and teachers have to realize that the subject is complex,” Killen says. “They must teach children to follow their hearts but never intend to do harm to anyone and be careful not to inflict harm on anyone.”

For Killen and other experts, it is important for parents to distinguish among types and degrees of rejection. Killen's research on peer and intergroup relationships shows that it is really only children who are repeatedly rejected over a long period of time — either because of bad behavior, social status or some other reason — who are at risk. “This only amounts to 10 to 15 percent of kids for whom something is going on. They are the extreme.”

Killen and others' greatest hope is that parents will model correct behavior, rolling with the punches when rejection hits their children in the face.

That's what a Los Altos mother of three did after her daughter — let's call her Miranda — was devastated at not being invited to her best friend's birthday party. The two girls had had a spat the weekend before. Miranda and her mother commiserated and responded to the slight with kindness — by inviting the offending girl to Miranda's party.

By Joyce Gemperlein
22 March 2004

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