Some habits are ingrained in us at such an early stage of our lives. We try to change some of these things we do but change is tough. When we look back at our childhoods we can laugh at our immaturity and our uninformed ways. But if we are honest and take a comprehensive look at our upbringing and our early experiences, we can see how some persistent habits in our lives formed long ago are still with us. What am I talking about? How we relate to others and others different than ourselves. The formation of our circles of friends. The creation of our networks. The ultimate membership in our communities. All can be heavily influenced by our childhood experiences. Who we are, who we like, who we are comfortable with, who we trust…..
Remember when we were in junior high (middle school) and then high school? We had to start choosing the groups of friends that would define us and sometimes categorize us. Jock, preppy, brainiac, emo, stoner…the ethnic clusters and any other attributes that could determine where you sat at lunch or who you were seen with. And once you self-selected or where peers pushed you, it was hard to be a part of multiple cliques that crossed groups. It was especially tough on those who were un-affiliated–the loners. We now know that most of these choices had little impact on our success or future paths. Or did they?
A number of school districts, including Hawthorne California, are attempting to disrupt the formation of these cliques they see as reinforcing stereotypes and even bigotry. Before we discard this as another liberal initiative to have political correctness in our schools, read on. Well established that cliques or friendship circles are essential to the normal development of a kid. You play soccer, therefore you hang with the futbolers. You are academically oriented so you cavort with scholars. You think looks determine success so your crew is "beautiful". etc etc. No program is going to change these natural gravitational and centripetal forces. But taken to the extreme, say in prison, your "clique" is an ethnic gang and you have to maim or kill a rival prisoner as part of your initiation. I am still personally distraught over a white kid I was counseling 30 years ago who had to join an Aryan prison gang that guaranteed his life imprisonment. And today, the sophistication and the segregation by gangs and ethnicity is out of control. Regrettably some of these prison behaviors start to manifest themselves on our school campuses. In diverse communities in LA and other parts of the country, young students may have to bond with their ethnicity over their interests. So segregation around race, income etc starts to show up. Yes, yes, this starts with parents, but our schools are where peer pressure plays out.
Don't get me wrong, cliques can create structure and reinforce the good and the moral. But they can also do the opposite.
So back at Hawthorne public schools. These schools are trying gentle and innovative ways to get students to mingle and to connect to different students. I guess early childhood education now includes early networking education–love it! They sponsor "Mix-it-Up Days", a national project sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance Program that encourages social boundary crossing. But also helps many students form new social connections. The disconnected are as worrisome as the exclusively connected. So starting in elementary school, Hawthorne has provided the Mix it Up sessions with good success as reported by LA Times reporter Carla Rivera this week. One student, Paige(11)said she was not able to join groups with the wealthy kids. Shayna, another student, "Before I might have chosen to sit alone rather than with new people because it felt safer." So at an early stage young people recognize and start to internalize where they belong or not.
I hear the exact same things In the workshops I do for adults that have been out of high school for 20 years+!! Making connections outside of our comfort zones that expand our networks is an elusive goal because of our learned and comfortable habits. Introducing ourselves to people we interact with on a daily basis–like our neighbors or work colleagues, remains a challenge for mysterious reasons. I have written and spoken about the proven health benefits derived from forming diverse relationships that test your thinking and challenge your assumptions. Yet, our habits, our socialization and our own fear keeps our orbit close to the planets we know and further from new discoveries. So, if we don't make an effort to connect to new and different people, our personal and community healths are at stake.
My parents helped me understand how important it was to learn new things and to meet new people. It has never been easy, but the benefits of expanding my horizons, disabusing myself of stereotypes and old falsehoods has kept me going back for more. Never too late to learn a lot from kids and our children. Mixing it up has to be the never ending goals of avoiding the complacency of settling for the status quo of our existing clique or circle of friends, strengthening our sense of connectedness by meeting new people AND rejecting our limited world views as the truth. It all starts by sticking out your hand out and introducing yourself.
Thanks for reading. John