Perhaps you are wondering why cliques surface in middle childhood and take on such significance in the first place. Common terms such as in-group, clique, pecking order, and even more pedantic ones like status hierarchy make many adults uncomfortable, particularly when these terms are applied to children. This is so because these descriptors imply a set of winners and losers in the game of social relationships. Adults often prefer to believe that children are less critical and more tolerant of each other than these descriptors suggest. But like it or not, there is strong evidence for the existence of stable status groups among children and adolescents.

What motivates the development of distinct cliques? Two major forces are at work: first, the need to establish an identity, and second, the need for acceptance (approval) and belonging. Peers play a central role in the process of identity or self-development. The search for the self rests largely on comparing oneself to and distinguishing oneself from others by means of social comparison processes. One’s own identity becomes more distinct to the degree that it can be contrasted to that of another. Children who tend to dress, act, or otherwise express themselves in similar ways gravitate to each other. Together, they form a type of social group that provides some identity to its own members and a basis of comparison to, and for, others. A group’s identity is based on shared activities, values, clothes, and behaviors. Recognizing and understanding group characteristics helps early adolescents construct a map of the social world and provides them with a knowledge base about human differences.

Individuals’ needs for acceptance and belonging also help explain the significance of the peer group. Children as well as adults want to be liked by their associates and will typically engage in the kinds of behaviors that result in their friends’ praise or approval (Hartup, 1983). In addition to this kind of external social reinforcement, youngsters are also motivated by more internal goals. Berndt and Keefe (1996) point out that children and adolescents are intrinsically motivated to identify with their friends in behavior, dress, and academic achievement, but because they get satisfaction from emulating their friends’ characteristics and being part of a group, not because they fear retribution if they fail to conform.