Instantly, I found myself defensive on her behalf, eager for my daughter to be every bit as popular as Zoe. “But you have lots of friends!” She looked back at me, seeming a bit confused. “I know,” she said. “But Zoe is popular.”
I had missed the point. At 8, Katie understood the difference between friendships and the high social status that is popularity, a distinction that kids sense—and can begin to play to—as early as preschool. “Even very young kids know who has the social power in the classroom,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, “and by fifth or sixth grade, popularity can become nearly all-consuming.”
Well-meaning parents (like me) encourage their kids to pursue popularity—as if it were synonymous with success. It's not. What makes kids outcasts in school—usually an unwillingness to conform—often translates into success as an adult. Many companies—including Yahoo!—prioritize hiring quirky individuals who shun conventional thinking. When you grow up, you see that the most popular kids aren't necessarily the ones who come out on top, but you don't understand that when you're 11. Social science researchers are emphatic that it doesn't guarantee adoration, either. “Being popular is not necessarily about being well-liked,” says journalist Alexandra Robbins, who studied school society for her book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. “It's more about clawing your way to the top of the social hierarchy and then working your tail off to stay there.”
New Jersey mom Nanette Jenkins* recalls a scene that played out at her daughter's grade school. “When Anna was in fourth grade, there were two girls who would invite another girl to hang with them during recess. They'd tap the chosen girl on the shoulder. They'd sit apart and gossip,” recalls Jenkins. Sometimes they'd go as a group and say mean things to another kid's face. “Even though Anna didn't care about those girls—she thought they were both ‘pretty dumb’—and knew what they were doing was wrong, she confessed she was hurt because she'd never been tapped.”
Elementary school kids, then, are just as susceptible to social striving as their older sibs. Even at this age, there are signs of who the future prom kings and queens may be, says University of California-Davis sociology professor Robert Faris, Ph.D., author of a recent study on the topic. “Young children express this in terms of who is (and isn't) a desirable play partner.” Some children are rejected—and others are quite “popular”—from the start of kindergarten.
Vaillancourt agrees, saying it's the kids who are dramatically better (or worse) behaved than the norm who are typically rejected early on: “They understand who sets the rules, including which kids get to play. The others need to conform, or at least not challenge them.” To understand your child's world, “listen for who always decides on the games and how they're played,” notes Vaillancourt. “These are the early abuses of power that get bigger.”
With boys, the barometer of popularity is, almost universally, athletic ability. “In second grade—second grade!—the very athletic boys segregated themselves to one lunch table,” says Sheila Hahn of Potomac, MD. “My son refers to it as the ‘popular table.’ The head honcho is mean to many kids and ‘freezes out’ my son.” Hahn's son recently became “obsessed” with lacrosse. “I think he sees it as a way to gain a seat.” Hillary Bessiere is the mom of twin 11-year-old boys in San Mateo, CA. Though physically identical, one boy is a star athlete, while his brother leans toward drama club. “Kids feel they have to invite both to parties. This sometimes results in neither getting invited,” she says.
Recently, Faris and other researchers began documenting the dark side of popularity. He found that, surprisingly, the most popular kids are hit with more peer pressure. Contrary to the movie image of the dorky kid doing anything to be popular, more often it's the popular kid doing anything to stay that way. Other studies bear this out, showing a correlation of popularity with poor grades and a higher tendency to drink, have early sex, and even shoplift.
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