January 8, 2020

Mythbusters: Questioning Conventional Wisdom in Parenting Part 4: Should you worry if your child isn't popular?

By Devon MacEachron

Many of us hope our child will be popular with their peers, and worry when they are not. After all, popular kids seem to be happier, self-confident, constantly in demand for play-dates, and are looked up to and deferred to as leaders.

Let me define what I mean by "popularity" for the purposes of this article. In elementary through high school, there is a hierarchy of social groups or cliques. About 30% – the popular kids – are in the dominant “in group” at the top. Next come the “wannabes” (10% of kids) who desperately want to be accepted into the popular group and hang around its fringes, hoping for social breadcrumbs. About 50% of students are somewhere in the middle where they may establish a smaller friendship group. Kids in the middle tend to be envious of and dislike the popular kids and also make efforts to distinguish themselves from the “losers” at the bottom of the hierarchy. At the bottom are the remaining 10% of students who are socially isolated and don’t belong to any friendship group.

So, is being popular really an advantage? Or not? Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

Top 5 Advantages of Being Popular:

  1. Better grades: Teachers appear to like popular and physically attractive kids better than others, giving them more attention, more praise, and higher grades. It’s terribly unfair, but often true. It’s the teachers who are perceived as “cool” by students who are most prone to this, so their biases have impact and give adult credibility to the social sorting the children do themselves.
  2. Never lonely: Popular children don’t have to worry about finding a friend to come over, who to play with at recess, where to sit in the lunch room, being invited to parties, or getting a girlfriend or boyfriend. However, these may not always be “true” friends, and the popular child may feel lonely inside while on the outside appear to be surrounded by friends.
  3. Increased self-esteem: Being popular boosts self-esteem, with popular adolescents displaying higher levels of ego development.
  4. Health boost: Popularity lowers blood pressure and protects against being overweight. Feeling socially rejected increases stress hormones which can have a negative effect on the heart. These mechanisms may explain the long-term health benefits of having been popular in middle school found in this Swedish study. This one surprised me.
  5. Leadership skills: By definition, popular kids are leaders. They set the trends and others follow. Popular kids learn how to get others to do what they want. The leadership skills they practice in school may help them later in life. Many popular schoolchildren do, in fact, go on to become CEO’s.

Top 5 Disadvantages of Being Popular:

  1. Requires conformity: Having the qualities that make one popular may come naturally to some, but most children must put on an act and attempt to hide their true self to keep it up. This is not healthy, and it can be especially hard for gifted children. Miraca Gross wrote in Exceptionally Gifted Children that 80% of extremely gifted children feel they have to continuously monitor their social behavior to conform to expectations of their peer group. Sally Reiss described in The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children how bright girls often “play dumb” to increase social acceptance.
  2. Dangerous and unhealthy behaviors: Popular kids are more likely to get into trouble with mild deviant behavior, including shoplifting, drinking, smoking, sex, and shoplifting. As adults, former “cool kids” have a 45% higher rate of problems with alcohol and drugs and a 22% greater rate of criminal behavior.
  3. Inflated ego: Being popular can lead to becoming vain, egotistical, materialistic, and shallow.
  4. Being mean. Popularity is a competition. To stay in the popular clique may require some nasty political maneuvering and even bullying to maintain or enhance social status. This is the “mean girls” phenomenon, but it isn’t limited to girls.
  5. Time consuming: It can require considerable effort, taking time away from other more valuable pursuits, to do what it takes to maintain one’s status in the popular group. For some (especially girls) this may involve hours devoted to social media, hair, make-up, and clothes. For others (especially boys) it may involve hours spent at the gym trying to develop a “built” body and playing sports.

What’s a parent to do?

I feel the disadvantages of being popular outweigh the advantages – especially for gifted kids. I’ve worked with too many who aspire to popularity and damp down their intelligence and individuality in an effort to achieve it. Imagine what they could accomplish if all that mental energy and time were devoted to something that makes them happy of greater long-term value?

I do feel that parents should step in if needed to help their child learn how to make a small group of true friends. Your child might be most likely to find this among the 50% of children in the middle of the social hierarchy. Having high‐quality close friendships is associated with better psychological health, psychosocial adjustment, and higher rates of overall happiness. True friends are more likely to allow your child to be their genuine self.

If you find your child is in the bottom 10% of the social hierarchy you might try to get them out of the situation – if it troubles them. Some children may truly not notice or care (though you should watch for bullying). However if your child is socially isolated and does care, I suggest taking steps to change their environment by moving them to a different school or consider home schooling. It's near impossible to start over socially once one is at the bottom, and an opportunity to start over may be just what your child needs.

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