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Does Popularity Really Matter?

My daughter Katie was only a second-grader when she used a phrase I didn't think I'd hear for years. “I'm not popular,” she announced matter-of-factly at dinner one night. “Me and Izzy think Zoe is the most popular girl in our class.”

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.”