Chickens have what’s known as a “pecking order.” There’s a top hen, who picks on the next hen, who picks on the next-most-powerful hen, and so on all the way down the line to the poor hen at the bottom of the ranking, which is picked on – and pecked on – by all the hens of higher rank. Quite often, this lowest hen is pecked unmercifully, even to death. It’s not a good scene and is one of the problems those who keep flocks of chickens worry about.
Chickens and children are not the same. Yet those who keep track of children notice that there’s a pecking order among them too. The “top” child becomes the “most popular” child and all the other children fall into line depending on the favor bestowed upon them by this most popular kid.
There are winners and losers here. But the losers aren’t chickens. They are your children.
Naturally, this is not a good scene. No one wants her son or daughter to be unpopular or left out. But this is where we parents lose our good sense and make things worse. If we buy into this popularity thing, being happy when the “most popular” child invites our own kid over to play and otherwise worrying about our child’s social status, we add to the problem. We become accomplices in what is a dangerous game.
There can only be one winner in the popularity sweepstakes. If – for now, anyway – your own child is the most popular one, she is anxious about keeping her standing. She is likely to become nasty and manipulative of others – threatening to drop friends who don’t do as she says or encouraging others to join her in verbal bullying of other kids. The queen of the heap only stays queen if she can control her subjects. In supporting your most-popular child, you are helping to create a social monster.
There’s only one winner but many losers in the popularity game, and it’s likely your child is one of these. If she’s near the top of the friendship rankings, she may be plotting a coup by spreading rumors about children more popular than she. If your child is nearer the bottom of the friendship rankings, she may be depressed, unhappy, and even unwilling to go to school or play with other kids. Either way, your child is in danger, of becoming mean and nasty or of becoming isolated and discouraged.
To a certain extent, this jockeying for position happens naturally among groups of kids and is fluid enough to be of only passing concern for parents. But when moms and dads actively participate in the popularity game, by keeping track of the social standing of their child and their child’s friends, then there will be trouble ahead.
- No matter how much your own popularity mattered to you in school, don’t project your anxiety onto your son or daughter. Don’t live through them or try to fix your own life by manipulating theirs.
- As much as possible, let your children figure out their own social relationships and settle their own social problems. How will they learn to handle conflict and negotiate solutions if you’re always interfering? Their friends are their business, not yours.
- Accentuate the positive. Say only nice things about other children and avoid comparing one child’s clothes/toys/vacations/ pets to other children’s. These are kids. Why are you obsessed with them and their stuff?
- Reject bullying behavior wherever it happens. It’s bullying to call people names, lie about them, uninvite them to your birthday party and threaten rejection just as much as it’s bullying to steal lunch money and hit people. Don’t look the other way when your own child is a verbal bully and support your child when he’s the victim of verbal bullying.
- Most of all, don’t play into the hands of those who want to rank children by popularity (or intelligence or athletic ability or anything else). Refuse to participate in these conversations. Imagine that others talked about your own rank on the prettiness scale. You wouldn’t like it one bit!
High school taught a lot of us that popularity matters. Most adults outgrow this delusion. Remember that who is the most popular doesn’t translate in any way to life success. What does translate is feeling supported and appreciated.
That’s what every child needs.