It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Toxicity of Popularity

“She’s going to be a popular girl.”

Emma and I have been watching the children interact. I nod my head, and agree. “Yes, I’m afraid you could be right.”

In our household lexicon “popular girl” is not a compliment. It’s not something to aspire to. The “popular girls” are that clique of classroom ‘It’ girls, the ones who head the social pack. The predatory ones. The conscious-less ones.

We all know them. They have some quality that attracts followers, whom they use and abuse, entrance and discard, as the whim hits. For some reason, despite their manifold unpleasant traits, they attract the most attention; others desire their approval, aspire to their company.

Emma, still watching, comments. “She’s pretty, she has lots of nice clothes. She expects everyone to do what she says, and she’s rude and bossy with the other kids, it doesn’t bother her if she makes someone sad. She’ll be a ‘popular girl’, for sure.” I think other families call this kind of girl a “Heather”.

I remind Emma that this child is awfully young to be making those kinds of judgements. All sorts of things could happen between now and grade school.

Popularity is an odd thing. However it’s defined, it’s just not something I’ve ever wanted for my children. Popular kids are more likely to be oblivious to the emotional hurt they can inflict. How could it be that bad, when ‘everybody’ still wants to be their friend? And the power of a dismissive word or a sneer! Corrosive, that power. De-humanizing.

Popularity puts you at the mercy of the social currents. Your value is determined by others, by the concensus of the group. The group could turn on you, stripping you of your identity, leaving you alone. You have to stay on top. Who needs that kind of vulnerability? I’d far rather my kids be outside the popular core, I’d even rather they feel a little outcast and downcast at times, so long as their identity comes from within.

And of course, when your identity comes from within, you are far less vulnerable to the rejection of certain of your peers. You know your own value.

I wonder how this little miss will weather school. She already struggles hard to be the focus of all attention. She cannot enjoy a game unless she is being watched. She does not stick to a task without frequent praise. Well, she does now, but it’s the result of determined effort — on my part to wean her from the praise addiction, on her part to force it from me for every hiccup and blink. She wasn’t happy with me for a while, but now she knows, I hope, that occasional praise which is truly earned is worth more than a stream of patronizing fake-praise for non-accomplishments.

All toddlers thrive on attention, of course, but her need for attention goes well beyond what is standard for the age.

Someone whe needs the attention of others to take satisfaction in her achievements will never do anything for her own satisfaction. Someone who needs the focus of others’ eyes to make her real in her own mind has no reality when no one watches. Imagine the vulnerability, the fragility, of self-esteem based on others’ attention and approval.

Every day in a dozen small ways, I try to wean her from her craving for eyes upon her, to teach her that she is, even without the focus and adulation of the masses, that satisfaction can come from bringing happiness to someone else. I try to pass these principles and goals on to her parents. I hope I am successful. I hope, for her sake, smart and pretty and stylish though she may be, that she’s never a ‘popular girl’.

January 17, 2008 Posted by | individuality, my kids, parenting, peer pressure | 12 Comments