Cards on the table, there were times during my childhood when I clung to this particular consolation prize. Each time my application to the popular kid’s club was rejected I’d think, “my time is coming”. The thought that I would have the “last laugh” once I escaped the jungle of the schoolyard gave me hope.
It also appealed to my childlike sense of justice and balance. If you’re lucky enough to cruise through school on the wave of popularity, then it only seems fitting you’ll fall on your face sometime later in life.
If you want to have good friends, then be a good friend.
But with an extra 30 years of life experience under my belt, the assumption that popular kids are, by definition, mean failures-in-waiting strikes me as, well, mean.
Encouraging your kid to be a “mean girl” to shield herself from “mean girls” is unlikely to turn out well for anyone.
Educator and friendship skills expert Dana Kerford says that teaching your child to avoid certain “types” of kids, and speaking negatively about “types” of kids, is a recipe for discrimination.
“If we want to raise children who are kind, we must show them what kindness looks like,” says Kerford who is the founder of URSTRONG.
“The message we should give our children is: If you want to have good friends, then be a good friend.”
The other problem with encouraging your kid to believe in the popular/mean/loser myth, is that the world doesn’t work that way. But don’t take my word for it. A long-term experiment conducted by Canadian researchers, analysing kindness in 400 kids aged 9 to 12, also found that kind kids are popular kids.
In the study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, the students were divided into two groups. One group was asked to document enjoyable places they visited, while the other group was asked to perform acts of kindness such as sharing their lunch or giving their mum a hug when she felt stressed.
After four weeks, both groups reported higher levels of happiness, but the kids who had performed acts of kindness also experienced greater acceptance from their peers, such as more children wanting to work with them.
According to the authors: “Doing good for others benefits the givers, earning them not only improved well-being but also popularity”.
This is no surprise to Dana Kerford.
“If we define ‘popular’ as being ‘well liked’ and having a lot of friends, my experience as a teacher, working with tens of thousands of kids, is that these are the children who are kind,” she says.
It turns out that popular kids don’t grow up to be losers either. A 20-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that kindergarten children who cooperated with peers, were helpful to others, shared, played fair, resolved problems – in other words, kids that other kids want to play with – were more likely to be successful and happy later in life.
The myth that popular kids are bullies is reinforced in popular culture with stories of mean girls and bad boys. However, Kerford suggests that we need to be careful not to confuse “popular” kids with “controlling” kids.
“Some children appear popular because the kids around them follow their lead and do what they say,” says Kerford. “This is a perceived popularity, but the undercurrent is fear. These are not the kids that get invited to lots of birthday parties.”
When it comes to friendships the best advice we can give to our kids is really very simple: be kind and choose friends who are also kind.
Writer, author of ’30-Something and Over It’. View more articles from Kasey Edwards.