Popular Demand


The ins and outs of the in-crowd


By Gabrielle Bauer

Thereís a five-year-old boy in my sonís kindergarten class who seems destined to lead the popularity polls. He gets invited to all the birthday parties, has enough playdates to require a Palm Pilot and enjoys the privilege of watching his buddies fight over who will sit or line up beside him. What aspects of his being account for his popularity?

His looks? Heís certainly cute, though many of his classmates are just as cute. His leadership qualities? My own, somewhat less popular son frequently takes the lead when they play together. Is it that heís always in the know about "happening" stuff like Bionicles and Beyblades?

Itís an enigma, this popularity thing: seemingly effortless to those who have it, unfathomable to those who donít. If our own child is one of the have-nots, the whole popularity game may seem grossly unfair. How dare Jimmyís classmates not invite him to the baseball game? Why does the phone never ring for Sarah? As we watch our children stumble in the social realm, we may also find ourselves wondering: Does popularity really matter? And, if so, is there anything we can do to help our kids achieve it?

These questions arise well before the preteen years, when social preening reaches its peak. As my sonís little friend exemplifies, the social ranking game starts early ó in kindergarten or even preschool. Consider this quandary described by the five-year-old daughter of Hamilton, Ontario, mom Marian Pettigrew*: "I have a problem," she said to her mom on the way home from school. "Ashley told me she canít be friends with me anymore unless I stop being friends with Marcus." Pettigrew was stunned. "Five years old and already theyíre pulling each otherís social strings!"

Nature vs. Nurture
If popularity starts early in life, it may be because it arises, at least in part, from an inborn social advantage. Just like aptitude in math or music, social skills are partly something youíre born with, says Mel Levine, a professor of paediatrics at the University of North Carolina and authority on cognitive and social development in children. "But even a child with weaker social circuitry can improve his social aptitude," he stresses. In his recent book, A Mind at a Time, Levine lists ten communication skills that power social competence, including appropriate topic selection, decoding feelings, use of humour, complimenting, fluency in the lingo of peers and mood matching.

Hereís an example of mood matching: Two girls are sitting in the cafeteria, giggling about hairstyles. A third girl approaches them and joins in the hilarity, contributing an anecdote about a kooky hairdo she saw on TV. By the time the fourth ó and less socially adept ó girl approaches the group, the trio is in a state of mania. Feeling nervous and awkward, the fourth girl says, "Oh, we have that big test tomorrow, donít we?" and the group falls silent. "What the fourth girl is doing is misreading the mood, a big-time taboo among kids," says Levine. She digs herself an even deeper social hole if she fails to read the signals that sheís seriously off-topic, then continues, "Has anyone studied for the test yet?"

If the fourth girl happens to be graced with a pixie-cute face, however, sheíll likely elicit a less negative response. "Thereís no doubt that physical attractiveness confers an advantage in terms of popularity," says Marion Balla, director of the Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group in Ottawa. In fact, "research suggests that attractiveness is one of the main determinants of social success."

On the other hand, we all know kids who are less than stunning but stunningly popular, as well as kids with cover-child looks but blah ratings in the popularity polls. Perhaps more than good looks, itís how a child presents herself that helps or hurts her popularity rating: what she wears, how she carries herself, how she does her hair. Of course, it can be more than presentation. There are kids who are popular simply because theyíre fun to have around ó warm, friendly and just plain nice.

Whoís In and Whoís Out?
Even a winning personality does not guarantee your child a place in the in-crowd. A truism of school life is that the inner circle can accommodate only a certain proportion of the student body. In their 2001 book Cliques, authors Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese cite research showing that, in a typical group of schoolchildren, 35 percent belong to the popular clique, another ten percent exist on the margin of the clique, 45 percent donít belong to the in-crowd but have a handful of close friends, and the remaining ten percent have few or no friends. Which means that, statistically speaking, the odds are about two to one that your child will exist somewhere outside the inner sanctum.

This is hardly the end of the world. Contrary to what some parents may think, Giannetti and Sagarese maintain that the kids in the third group (the 45 percent who have a few close friends) are generally happier than those in the popular clique. Popularity "produces constant anxiety," they write. Clique members always wonder whether their status will change from one minute to the next.

This anxiety intensifies in the upper elementary school years, when social life becomes more conscious and calculated. Susan Cooper*, an elementary school principal in Toronto, lets out a long sigh as she describes the phenomenon. "I see this in spades, especially with the girls, who have the language to think and talk about social interactions. The more dominant ones begin to use their power to hurt less sophisticated kids."

Cooper is also the mother of 12-year-old Alison, who "thankfully made the choice to be smart rather than popular. She actually came out and told me, Ďeither I dumb down or I remove myself from the world of really popular kids.í"

So does this mean you canít display your intelligence and be popular at the same time? "I wish I could say otherwise, but the two donít usually mix," says Cooper. The exception to this rule? Athletes. "Having athletic ability is a ticket to popularity, regardless of gender," Cooper notes. "If someone happens to be a great runner or hockey player, then she can get away with being smart and still be popular."

Although Alison doesnít regret her choice, Cooper says her daughterís still vulnerable to the judgments of the popular crowd. "The other day a girl told her she needed a makeover before going to a dance, and my daughter ó a beautiful girl with cornsilk hair and a perfect smile ó simply accepted the validity of the comment."

If your child finds herself longing, even fleetingly, for a ticket to the inner circle, Cooper suggests you ask her to examine the values in that circle. "Iíd ask her to consider: ĎWould these people really be your friends? Could you count on them in a crisis?í and remind her of the importance of choosing safe, compatible friends." Cooperís advice underscores the point that popular kids arenít necessarily the ones youíd like to have beside you on a leaky boat. To be sure, some popular kids are warm and empathetic, but others are not so nice and abuse their social power ó the girl who lords it over the class, deciding who is "in" and who should be shunned, the boy who swaggers around leading a troop of suggestible followers. If you recognize your child in such lords or vassals, a conversation about values could help him think more maturely about his behaviour, Cooper says.

If itís hard for a child to resist the tug of the P-word, parents can have an equally hard time of it. Nina Tanner*, an administrator at a Toronto learning institute, says her own mood used to rise and fall with her daughterís social victories or defeats. Now 14, Tannerís daughter spent much of her early childhood as a social outcast. "She was rarely invited to parties," says Tanner. "When she was, my heart would soar ó and Iíd always buy really good gifts!"

Giannetti and Sagarese warn against this type of over-investment, stressing that a parent canít directly influence how popular her children are going to be. Tanner concedes the point: "My attempts to boost my daughterís popularity rating were only making me more anxious."

The Parent as Social Guru
This doesnít mean you canít do anything to help your child socially. "Parents canít guarantee popularity but they can provide social mentoring," says Levine. You can start by discussing basic social skills with your child ó empathy, showing interest, giving compliments ó and acting as a sounding board for his social problems. "Invite your child to offer his own solutions before giving advice," Levine suggests. "That way, he develops an awareness of social processes."

Next, ask yourself whether your child has enough common ground with her peers. A child whose interests run toward Baroque music and moth wings will likely be at a social disadvantage. "There is nothing wrong with being socially independent and having esoteric interests," Levine is quick to point out. "But it also makes sense to give your child at least some exposure to popular culture so he wonít feel totally clued out. Itís up to him to decide what to do with that exposure."

I learned this myself when I bought my four-year-old son, whose favourite activities are chess and card games, a set of Pokťmon cards. On the day he brought the cards to school (before I learned they were banned), his popularity rating soared. It was astonishing to watch; kids who had never given the time of day launched into conversation with him: "How many cards do you have? I have a million gazillion and fourteen." I have no desire to turn my child into a pop-culture poster boy, but I could see that the cards (you can substitute Polly Pockets or Beyblades) were a kind of currency, and I realized the value of giving my naturally cerebral little boy at least a few coins in the realm.

By the same token, having a well-developed skill can also raise a childís worth in her peersí estimation. "Think of the kid who plays guitar," says Balla. "Other kids look up to him because he has a skill they aspire to and because he can entertain the group with his playing." Be it baseball, soccer or ballet, mastering a skill also boosts your childís self-confidence, which Balla calls the "ultimate social vitamin."

And donít forget the teacher. If your child is suffering socially, Andy Anderson, a professor of teacher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, suggests enlisting the teacherís help to ease your child into his peer group. "Once aware of the problem, the teacher can make an extra effort to put the social ball in your childís court ó for example, giving him the soccer ball when he and his classmates go outside to play."

Unfortunately, there are cases in which a child has become so entrenched in her role as outcast that little can be done to clear her social record. In such a case, changing schools may be the best solution, says Levine. To ease your childís integration into a new school, Levine suggests helping her find "a niche ó a specialty that makes her distinctive and valued." It could be her expertise on the Internet, his knowledge of basketball statistics, her rare coin collection or his mastery of computer games. Such a niche may not buy her popularity, but itís likely to pique the interest of at least one or two peers. Which is perfectly fine, says Balla. "Bear in mind that itís not popularity your child needs, but friendship."

Happily, most social problems donít require as drastic a solution as changing schools. As long as your child can latch on to one or two friends ó with your coaching from behind the scenes, if necessary ó she can eventually expand her social circle. Thatís exactly what happened to Tannerís daughter. "In grade four she decided she needed some friends. At first she made friends with other bright kids like herself, and then branched out from there," says Tanner. "Itís nice to see that early unpopularity isnít a childís social destiny."

* Names changed by request.

Social Stigma

Sometimes a childís lack of people skills may reflect more than a lack of social education. It is now widely believed that some children have a neurological impairment ó a type of learning disability ó that hinders their ability to send and receive social signals. Children with this problem, most commonly called nonverbal learning disorder or NLD, have trouble processing nonverbal information such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice.

They hear the words but miss the subtleties of communication ó the stuff thatís between the lines.

Attention to NLD is increasing among school boards across the country. Brian Ellerker, central coordinating principal of special education at the Toronto District School Board, says children suspected of having NLD can be formally tested for the disorder. "Todayís assessments for learning disabilities often include subtests for NLD," he explains. "In some school boards, kids with NLD receive extra instruction on how to read faces and decode other nonverbal cues," he says.

Parents can help, too. Ellerker recommends the following exercise: Turn the TV to a sitcom or soap opera, turn off the sound and ask your child to try to figure out whatís going on by observing the charactersí faces. "It may be very hard for children with NLD to do this exercise the first time," he says, "but they all improve over time."

March 2003


From TodayísParent.com March, 2003