Popularity among youth is a trait that has been researched over and over.  While in grad school, I read that many factors outside of one’s control could have an impact on popularity.  Surprisingly, height and early maturation were  factors.  A tall kid or a girl who “blossomed” early could land any kid in a spot where he or she would be seen as a leader.

And childhood popularity seems to predict positive outcomes for adults.  Mitch Prinstein of the University of North Carolina recently wrote a book entitled Popular: Why Being Liked is the Secret to Greater Success and Happiness.  According to Prinstein in a recent article,

“Adults who have memories of being popular in childhood are the most likely to report that their marriages are happier, their work relationships are stronger, and they believe they are flourishing as members of society. People who recall unpopular childhood experiences report the opposite.”

Seems pretty tidy doesn’t it?  But think back to your last high school reunion.  The bookish kid who was a total introvert with no friends is successful, has a lovely wife and a big family.  And the guy who was destined for the NFL, always had a girlfriend and a posse of friends who followed him around?  He didn’t end up finishing college, has been divorced three times and can’t keep a job.  Yes, these are stereotypes, but we’ve all seen variations of them.  However, they don’t seem to fit Prinstein’s hypothesis.  What’s the reason for that?

Two Kinds of Popularity

In an article about his book, Prinstein explains that research shows there are actually two kinds of popularity.  Likeability and status are the two very different sides of popularity.  Prinstein explains it this way:

“At school most people can recall that some of the most popular teens were hated by many. If that seems like a contradiction, it reflects the fact that most of the people high in one type of popularity are actually low in the other. The first type of popularity is a reflection of status – whether someone is well known, widely emulated and able to bend others to his or her will. Research suggests that these types may be at high risk for a number of problems later in life.

The other type of popularity is likability. It captures those we feel close to and trust, and the people who make us happy when we spend time with them. In failing to recognise the distinction between these different types of popularity, many spend their lives searching for the wrong one.”

And that is the important takeaway here.  Kids and then adults may continuously climb over people to reach the top of an imaginary status ladder.  Sadly, even the top of that ladder is unlikely to yield genuine relationships and real satisfaction with life.

Help Your Child Focus on Likability, Not Status

In a separate interview, Prinstein addresses how social media fits into the quest for popularity.  It extends the reach of those with status and can be devastating for those kids who are unpopular.

The important message for kids is to not fall into the trap of seeking status.  Status-seeking kids use others or “punish” other kids for not following along with them.   These children are not developing the trusting, rewarding relationships that will support them in adulthood.  A better approach is to emphasize positive behaviors, as suggested in our blog about Teaching Kids Kindness from February 2017.