What Makes a Kid Popular?

3d, glasses, fauxhawk, kids, movie

“Oh, she’s a really popular kid in fourth grade,” said the little girl walking with my boys on the sidewalk. They were right in front of me, and I wanted to ask her why the “she” in question was so popular but decided to see how it played out. My boys just nodded, and the conversation continued without my interruption.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, how do you quantify popularity? Where does popularity come from? When do kids learn how to be popular? These would be the popular questions. Get it?

First, some backstory: I remember kids that were popular in elementary school when I was a kid, but many of them peaked early and by high school were just members of the pimpled mass. Then there were others that maintained their level of popularity well into the real world, and sometimes, late at night, you can still hear them smiling at you from some distant hallway.

I was fairly popular throughout high school (it didn’t last), but I didn’t fit any of the criteria that seemed to be the basis of so many stereotypes. I wasn’t a jock, noticeably handsome, or rich. In fact, now that I think about it, I may not have been popular at all. It’s been a while. Time is fuzzy.

My rise in social circles was mostly due to the classic right place/right time algorithm. I was the guy that did the morning announcements over the loudspeaker, emceed all of the school activities, had a lead role or two in our well-respected drama productions, and leaned a little to the geeky side (see, algorithm). Also, my friends were jocks and handsome. I don’t remember anyone being rich.

But that was high school, and while those stereotypes still exist (according to TV— I haven’t been in a high school in a long time), it has been my personal experience that the rise of geekdom has helped level the playing field between what was once considered popular and what was not. Nerd is no longer a label to be stitched into one’s wedgie-torn undies, but something to be worn with pride. Actual nerds may vary.

Elementary school is full of dorky little kids being dorky little kids and loving every minute of it. When do they have time to care about hierarchies and the perception of status? At what point does the pecking order of popularity and the acceptance of social contracts/injustice start? On what is it based?

I’m not even sure that I would want my kids to be popular. Yes, I want them to be liked by their peers and to have good friends, but there are a lot of trappings to popularity that I would rather they not deal with. First world problems? Maybe—but, and I’m painting with the stereotype brush here, I wouldn’t want them to feel that they had to be something that they are not. I want them to be, first and foremost, comfortable in their own skin. I’m basing a lot of this on Glee and various Disney Channel movies, so forgive me if my grasp of stereotypes is a little rusty. I’m quite positive that many popular kids in real life are genuine and totally sincere, which is fantastic, but those kids don’t get their own shows on MTV. It worries me a little bit.  At what price comes fame?

Last night there was an event for parents at our school where, thanks to two different conversations, I was able to glance behind the curtain of popularity. First, one of the teachers mentioned that she considers my oldest son to be a leader. To be completely honest, this was news to me (and my wife). He is many things, but we had already started coming to terms with his tendency to follow, so hearing something to the contrary was surprising. Does being a leader make a kid any more popular than the kid listening to him? Does it matter?

Then I heard that my youngest son is, according to classmates, very popular, and that everyone wants to be his friend. Did it feel good? Of course. However, I wasn’t going to let the moment get away without getting to the bottom of the situation.

“Why,” I asked, “is a kindergartener popular?”

“Because he doesn’t hit anyone,” they said.

That actually made a lot more sense than I was prepared to hear. Suddenly, popularity sounded kind of cool.

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