One of the most painful things I've ever seen happened a few years ago in my class. I had a student who was funny and gregarious and lovable. Everyone loved him. He was sort of like a big golden lab puppy. He was funny and athletic and a good actor. He was confident and friendly. Pretty much had it all.
He did something goofy in class--I forget what it was, but it was not all that funny in objective terms. But when he did it, everyone laughed and laughed--myself included. A few seconds later, another boy imitated him.
This boy was a nice boy. I liked him. But he didn't have the same social standing as the first boy. He wasn't all that funny and he wasn't quite as gregarious or lovable. He wasn't exactly disliked, but he wasn't really popular either.
He imitated the first boy and the class reacted with indifference to hostility. It wasn't funny. In fact, to be honest, it was annoying.
Same action--two different people. Two different responses.
I've thought a lot about this. Most middle school students, whether they acknowledge it or not, are on a personal quest for the Holy Grail of Adolescence: Popularity.
The desire to be liked and appreciated is human. It's normal. During the awkwardness of adolescence, it is one of the things that most (as always, there are exceptions) students want deeply and urgently. When they say, "popular" they don't mean it exactly in the literal sense. That is, they use the word in a way that denotes not only having many friends but also being seen as cool
Because this is a big deal to my students, it's a big deal to me. By that I mean that dealing with students who want to be popular and are struggling to be popular--and all the issues that it raises--is a big part of what I do on a daily basis.
I've watched this for a long time now and thought a great deal about it. I was not popular, myself as an adolescent. Now, I teach (and try to love) the popular and the unpopular.
But--back to the story I opened with. I have learned that there is a reason that popular kids are popular. For whatever reason, nature has endowed them with a winning bouquet of traits--they are often good looking. They are often articulate, or at least funny. They are often athletic or talented in other ways.
It's sort of not fair. But it's the way it is. A popular kid can do something and it seems funny. A less popular kid can do the same thing and it's obnoxious. It's not fair. But it's the way it is.
As far as I can tell, one is either popular or not. I've not ever seen any long-term mobility in this way. You've either got it or you don't. It can't be developed or gained.
Is that depressing? Sorry. But there is good news.
I have not seen unpopular kids become popular. But I have seen them earn the respect and even affection of their peers. That is the good news.
The best thing a child can do--I know this is old news--is to be his- or herself.
Year after year, I see kids in 6th grade who are on the outskirts. They are proverbial ugly ducklings. Some of them embrace it and just follow who they are without worrying too much about the crowd. Inevitably, by 8th grade, they've earned the respect of their peers and are often even beloved.
Others react--and this is very human--by trying harder and harder and harder. Each attempt to fit in more actually makes the whole situation more awkward. Middle school kids, for all their focus on appearances, are keen judges of authenticity. They can smell a fake like a horse can sense fear. They will almost always respond better to an authentic nerd than a counterfeit cool kid.
There is something that parents can do to help this--and something they can do to hinder it.
The worst thing parents can do is to try to make their kid popular. I see parents do this all the time. They take their child's social standing personally and actively work to try to improve this. It takes many forms, but it's always--ALWAYS--unsuccessful. In fact, it usually makes things worse.
A wise parent, when helping their child work through social difficulties will not push. In fact, a wise parent will not become involved beyond offering love and support and advice. I know that sounds obvious, but you'd be shocked at how many otherwise good and intelligent parents go a little crazy when it comes to their child's social status.
This is hard as a parent. It's really, really hard. In fact, it's painful. But the best thing you can do is to help your child be true to who he or she really is. It won't solve everything. But I guarantee it will be far better than trying to force coolness or popularity.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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