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No one gets out of middle or high school unscathed, popular or not. I guess I should begin there. And now that I’ve survived three tours of duty, I know from experience that this tough truth pains parents as much as it troubles their children.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said, “All of you are just beginning to understand how real friendships work. You have to be able to disagree and even argue with one another, but it’s scary, and things go off the rails. You’ll figure it out. You’ll all get better at this.”
Doesn’t that sound enlightened? Aren’t I the epitome of calm and informed perspective? Well, not always. These are the moments I prefer to recall though. Selective memory is a beautiful thing, and compartmentalization is a survival skill. It doesn’t matter whether our kids are on the giving or receiving end of social strife. All of it causes us pain, and there are no easy answers.
For instance, it’s easy to assume that popular kids are happy kids, and this is one of the reasons some parents coach their kids to attain social status. In the end, parenting my own kids through middle and high school taught me much about the perils of popularity though, and it was my kids and their friends who schooled me.
The fact is that many kids prefer to maintain a low profile, and many parents are relieved for this. Mitchell Prinstein appreciates this. As the director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, he also promotes a nuanced understanding of popularity, as research suggests it takes different forms. “High status” students are often team captains, student council presidents, and those who assume very visible leadership roles inside of their schools. They are some of the most popular kids, and they’re often widely disliked by those outside their circle. Researchers agree that envy might contribute to this phenomena, but the reality is that high status students are more likely to bully others, establish cliques, perpetuate mean-girl mindsets, and celebrate the very worst of jock culture.
“Likeability” is a different kind of popularity, and from my vantage point, compassion seems to be its distinguishing factor. These kids may not have high status, but they make others feel comfortable, accepted, and appreciated. Everyone wants to hang out with likable kids. They enjoy great relationships with their parents and with other adults too. Unlike high status kids, likable kids consistently practice genuine kindness.
This is where the good news ends though, and here’s why: popular kids are highly sensitive to the norms of their peer group, and they are very careful to attend to them. Whether they’re socialized to behave this way by their friends or coached to follow norms by their well-intentioned parents, those who view popularity as the pathway to happiness often suffer. And regardless of whether a student is high status or likable, the perils of popularity are troublesome.
Popular kids are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including drinking, drug use, and shoplifting. While petty criminal activity wanes beyond high school for popular students, issues with substance abuse often remain and even intensify throughout adulthood. According to Prinstein, the fact that popular kids are highly sensitive to group norms puts them at far greater risk. Risky behavior is the currency of adolescence, says Prinstein, and social strivers always fall in line.
In the end, it’s far more important for young people to be aware of these social dynamics and sensitive to the influence they have on their own lives. It’s okay for kids to seek status, but it may be far healthier for them to become trend-setters rather than trend-spotters and followers. Helping kids shift their mindsets about social acceptance is critical too. As it turns out, students who establish comfortable relationships with small groups of friends fare just as well as their popular peers when it comes to developing social skills. More importantly, while they may not achieve high status, these kids develop a deep sense of social acceptance and a level of esteem that can only be gained by treating everyone–including themselves–with respect and integrity.
Consider the adults you know. How many of them spend more time watching others, noticing what is popular and acceptable, and following the norm in order to maintain status? How many of these people seem perpetually disappointed or even disgruntled with their peer groups and partners as well? Who struggles with addiction? Who lives to judge?
As my girls have grown older, they’ve noticed that adults suffer the perils of popularity as much as their children do. In fact, their adult responsibilities may make for worse experiences. Prinstein’s research findings were compelling here as well. Popular people thrive in one significant way: they tend to make more money. And whether we like it or not, money matters. So, how do we shift that paradigm?
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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.