Practice of exclusion rampant among
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
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
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
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.”
“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
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
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