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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.”

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.

*Name has been changed.

Having a lot of friends isn't a bad thing, Faris says. The problems arise only when kids are willing to hurt one friend to get another, or they are so focused on who is “important” that they ignore kids they actually like. Faris suggests saying this: “True friends make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves.” Notice and encourage your child's positive interactions, and help her spot negative ones. Tell her your horror (or happy-ending) stories. These friendships are the prototype for high school. The stakes will be higher then, so now's the time to learn she should never change herself to make a “friend.”

Still, it's kind of hard not to wish for a popular kid, when every movie and TV show makes it seem like either a kid is all that or he's nothing. Debra Buser, mom of an 11-year-old in Langhorne, PA, knows the feeling. “Cassidy has been Miss Popularity since day one. The invitations never stop! And I admit, it makes me happy. Nobody wants their kid to be the one left off the party list.” But Robbins and those in the field say kids in what looks like neutral territory turn out most confident.

So how can you steer your kid to the sweet spot? Follow our advice for commonly botched opportunities:

Mean Kids

Sitch: The teacher says your child is making fun of other kids—including a close friend.

Struggle: Your knee-jerk reaction is to defend your child, of course. Kids squabble. Besides, he has tons of friends. He wouldn't if he picked on them, you try to tell yourself.

Solution: Own it. All kids can be mean—even yours. Then ask for specific examples of his behavior and go to your child. Don't be surprised if he tries to explain his actions away, says Vaillancourt, and blames other kids for starting it by being annoying or doing what he did first. Listen, but encourage your child to see it from the other kid's perspective. And even if what he says is true, he needs a better strategy for dealing with conflict. Suggest he move away—literally—from behavior that bugs him rather than giving back what he gets.

Best Friends for Never

Sitch: Your fifth-grader suddenly doesn't want to hang out with the small circle of pals she's had since kindergarten.

Struggle: Aack. You don't want her to be with kids she doesn't like, but they're all so sweet! And you are friends with most of the moms. So you encourage her to stick with them. Eh, she's probably just having a bad day.

Solution: It depends on the reason. If your child is being overpowered, you may hear something like “Emily always wants to play four-square” or “Madison thinks she's the boss.” In that case, trust her. Ironically, Faris's research indicates that a child is more likely to be bullied by her best friend than by other kids. But there's a difference between outgrowing a friend and tossing her aside to align with a “better” crowd. Phrases like “Nobody likes Hailey” or “Sara's uncool” may pop up. Nudge her to think about whether her new friends seem to be loyal. Do they treat her differently when other kids are around? Do they sit with her at lunch? What about recess? If the answers make you uneasy, point out how her old friend might be feeling. If she tries to downplay hurt she caused (“She's just a baby”), challenge her for examples. “Really? When has she acted like a baby before?” You can't force her relationships, but you can push the envelope to make sure she's got her eyes open.

The Bystander Bind

Sitch: Your 11-year-old mentions that his friends were picking on some new kid on the bus.

Struggle: You kinda wish he didn't tell you. You want him to stand up for what's right, but you can't get past the fear of your baby becoming the target. So you leave it at “I'm so glad you know better.” You're at least sending the message that what they did is wrong.

Solution: Think hard about the “risk” of the right thing. While your kid may not seem to be directly affected, witnesses are emotionally stressed. An increasing amount of research shows that possibly the only ones who can improve the social climate at schools are bystanders. Vaillancourt says that most of the time, a kid who stands up to a mean friend changes things for the better. It's simple and direct: “Please don't pick on Jacob. It isn't cool, and it isn't funny.” Occasionally, the challenger loses the “friend.” But would that be so bad?

The Right Stuff

Sitch: Your 8-year-old asks for the pricey sneakers, jackets, and jeans the other girls wear, implying that keeping up may win her friends.

Struggle: Part of you just wants to buy whatever she wants: It's worth the credit card bill if it makes her feel comfortable at school, isn't it?

Solution: We get it. It's hard to say no all the time. So buy the occasional coveted item if you want to, but discuss how hot becomes not once everyone has it. Point out last year's TDF boots or must-have tech tool that's faded away. Another angle: Ask whether her favorite celeb stands out because she looks and acts like everyone else…or because she does her own thing? Trying to keep up with the Joneses (or the Jordans) is expensive, endless—and doesn't really work. So try Shannon Rebelledo's tactic: The mom of four in Wichita, KS, simply asks her kids why they want it. “If they can't answer, they usually reason themselves out of it.” She also copies what her mom did: “She offered to buy me the Guess jeans if I did seven hours of chores, since it would take her that long to earn the money. I did it, but never again. The jeans did nothing for me at school.”

Solitary Refinement

Sitch: Your third-grader prefers shooting hoops in the driveway to playing soccer—but all of his good friends are in the soccer league. Between practices, games, and the parties, they all spend tons of time together.

Struggle: You'd love to just sign him up—you're the mom, and by definition know best! But instead you try (often) to sell him on “at least trying” soccer so he won't be left out.

Solution: Show him that his interests are important. Cajoling him to join soccer says that having friends means doing things you don't really want to. This is just the message so many kids succumb to in middle and high school. And remember that being left out isn't the same thing as opting out, notes Robbins. It's like your passing on tennis with the moms on your block. “Choosing to do what makes you happy is a strength, not a weakness.”