Today was Tanner’s first day of kindergarten. To get to his classroom, we passed through the school’s main office lobby. That’s where the memory hit me. Seeing that lobby this morning—the L-shaped configuration of chairs, the sliding glass office window, the fake plant, the tattered copies of Sports Illustrated on the table—I was back in grass-stained khakis, back in seventh grade. Coming in from recess, I saw my mother sitting in the school’s main lobby. Uh oh, I thought. This is not good.
When your child has no friends, parents go see the principal to find out why their child has no friends. Sadly, there’s nothing a man in a short-sleeve dress shirt and lacrosse tie can do about it. As I found out later that day, the principal told my mother rather bluntly, “Mrs. Bean, all of the popular students here play sports.”
Four years later, I was on the varsity football and lacrosse teams. This led to being invited to parties hosted by popular people. I ran for school president, and won. I had a pretty girlfriend who was several years younger. I was voted by my classmates to give the senior class speech at graduation. Amazingly, miraculously, I was popular.
Popularity: The Prozac of adolescence. It’s the drug that pumps up self-esteem and confidence. Who doesn’t want to be liked, admired by their peers, looked up to, thought of as special? Who doesn't want that for their children? Of course you do. You've spent the first years of your child's life making him feel like the captain of the football team. Once he gets older, you think he won't search for that feeling elsewhere?
Popularity appears to be something we want more for our sons than our daughters. Earlier this month, Coupon Codes 4 U conducted a survey of 2,105 American parents with children still in school. The parents were asked which of these they’d prefer their child to be: a straight A student, a successful athlete or good looking. 71 percent of respondents with a daughter wanted her to be a straight A student, while 12 percent chose successful athlete. Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents with a son said they wanted him to be a successful athlete. Most surprisingly, more people chose good looking (14 percent) than straight A student (11 percent).
But we should be careful what we wish for. Today, popularity is the enemy. In movies, the popular kids are portrayed as obnoxious, smarmy brats. For musicians, going platinum is selling out. All your favorite actors are self-proclaimed “theater geeks,” “losers” and “outcasts.”
This has birthed a surprising new phenomenon: No one really cops to being popular. I conducted an informal poll in the Parenting offices and via Facebook. I posed the following question: In middle and high school, would your classmates have described you as popular or unpopular? Seventy-nine percent said they were unpopular. Being cool has become uncool.
It’s time to make popular popular again. Why? Because the popular kid aces the job interview, wins over the clients, cares about his presentation, charms the party guests, woos the opposing side. He is confident, charismatic and has social skills. He's capable of carrying a conversation and entertaining groups of people.
And here’s the best part: Our kids have the power to reshape the very nature of popularity. Child and family psychologist Janet Sasson Edgette is the author of the new book The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood. “[Boys] are growing up in a society that is obsessed with manliness and athletic ability,” says Edgette. She is correct, but consider this: We’ve never been less obsessed with manliness and athletic ability. Monday Night Football pulls in ratings similar to The Big Bang Theory, Glee and So You Think You Can Dance.
So please, give me two sons who are popular. Whether said popularity comes from the glee club or soccer or art or tuba playing doesn’t matter. So long as they have it, and use it responsibly. Because let’s not forget: it’s still a drug. Results may vary.