One of the many things I cherish about being an adult is the realization that the adjective “popular” is rarely used in social settings anymore. I still remember, however, the first time I heard my 4th grade daughter use the word. I was astounded that she already measured other girls and boys by the social currency of popularity. How was it that she already knew that word as a 9-year old? I suddenly wanted to unload all of my experience with the popular set on her. Tempted to rise up and pontificate, I wanted to tell her to stay true to herself and not to do things in order to be popular or worse, to be considered acceptable by the popular group. I wanted to protect her from thinking that was the ultimate goal in life. In that instant though, even I could see that saying anything about those popular girls or boys would be equivalent to telling a young child the truth about Santa.
Unfortunately, there are some things that our daughters have to learn for themselves. It is learned through simple social maturity in most cases, but sometimes it is learned the hard way through emotional hurt that helps guide us to our true friends. Being a popular person is not in and of itself a bad thing. Popularity can be used for good or not so good, and it is interesting to take a look at how psychologists have studied the concept among adolescents.
In one of the chapters of Dr. Lisa Damour’s new book, Untangled, she takes the mystique out of a teen’s journey through, around, and finally on the other side of popularity. She begins to dissect the concept by pointing out that psychologists have divided peer popularity into two categories, “socio-metric popularity” and “perceived popularity.” Socio-metric describes “well-liked teens with reputations for being kind and fun.” Perceived popularity “describes teens who hold a lot of social power but are disliked by many classmates.” Think back to your middle and high school years—you know the ones to whom we are referring.
When girls (or boys) are asked to name the popular girls or boys in their class, we discover that being popular does not always imply being well-liked. In fact, many times they are referring to “perceived popularity,” which implies being powerful and domineering. Girls or boys who are friends with these classmates want to remain on their good sides and in some cases are fearful of social repercussions, if they fall from grace. This phenomenon seems to appear in full force around the seventh–grade, give or take a year. As parents, it is difficult to refrain from pointing out this behavior and micromanaging middle school friend groups, but we can begin to ask a few well-directed and well-timed questions. When you hear your daughter say that a girl is popular, Dr. Damour suggests that you should “deconstruct the term” by asking a question such as, “Is she popular or just powerful?” “Do girls like her or are they scared of her?”
The good news is that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the “popular” label, when you are securing it by acts of social aggression or domination. Thankfully, sometime around the 10th grade, most girls feel more comfortable with their true friends and begin to isolate the “mean girls.” Of course the other bit of good news is that the domineering or “perceived popular” girls grow up too. They realize it is best to be respected and not feared. At this point, the term “popular” may be applied to the girls in the class who are kind and at the same time are able to stand up to someone who is being unkind to them or to a classmate.
Personalities and social groups can be hard to navigate as adults, much less as a middle or upper school girl in the halls and lunchrooms of school. Dr. Damour points out that girls sometimes perceive the world as having either “Cinderellas,” who are the “doormats,” yet always kind, or the “step-sisters,” who are always cruel. We need to help our daughters know that “good girls” can also be assertive and stand up for what they know is right. Remaining respectful to others, while standing up to unkind behavior, is the social bullseye for our girls. We can all rest assured that one day, being popular will not have the cachet for our daughters that it once did. Having a few friends or even one quality friend who is supportive and loyal is what we all want in the long run.