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The Popularity Contest: Why You Don't Need to Finish First

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
Disclaimer: Psychological research is largely based on averages for groups of people.  We prove practically nothing in psychology!  It is too difficult--people are too complicated! When dealing with the human mind, one size does not fit all.

Think back to your grade school and high school years.  Think about the kids you went to school with.  Who was popular?  How would you describe those kids?  Who did you like the most among your peers?  Why did you like them? 

Research on popularity is now being understood with a new lens.  For decades, it went like this: Researchers would ask kids who they liked and disliked, and would then add up the number of likes and dislikes for each child. Based on the votes, kids were categorized as popular, average, controversial, rejected or neglected.  Those kids who received the most ''like'' votes (and rarely received dislike votes) were classified as ''popular.''

Recently, researchers have been paying attention to children’s comments a little bit more and have started to debate whether being liked is the same as being popular.  The answer: Being liked by many peers is not the same as being considered popular by peers.  Popularity is based more on reputation than on the degree to which one is liked. 

The (mostly) bright side: Popular kids tend to be competent both athletically and academically, and are often physically attractive.  They also show lots of prosocial behaviors and have good senses of humor.  The dark side: Kids who are popular tend to be socially dominant.  Popularity often involves aggressive physical and psychological/social behavior.  For some kids, the more relationally aggressive they are (spreading rumors, threatening not to be somebody’s friend), the more likely they are to maintain their powerful ''popular'' status.  And, unfortunately, when being mean to others pays off, it becomes a reinforcing cycle.

So, popularity as a measure of status or reputation feeds itself—and it starts early. I recently had a girls’ day with my friend’s 8-year-old daughter.  She knew the word ''popular'' and could name popular and unpopular kids.  She could also describe the battles and negotiations between girls on the playground.  Based on my extensive time in the classroom with these kids over the past few years, she was right on.  The scary thing is that recognition of (and the power of) popularity only intensifies with increasing age.

When your child begins to recognize the power of popularity, it is important to instill in them the meaning and value of healthy relationships.  When I visit schools and talk to kids (particularly girls), I leave them with several messages:
  • You should not define yourself by the number of friends you have.  It is the quality of your friendships, or how your friends make you feel, that matters.
  • Friendships are optional.  You do not have to be friends with certain people for the wrong reasons, such as their popularity.
  • Learn to be comfortable with competition, jealousy and anger because they are part of life…but don’t lash out at others because of them.
  • Relationship conflict is perfectly normal.  It is what you do with it and how you resolve it that matters.
  • Do not let other kids treat you badly because you think it is too risky to say you won’t take it.
As parents, we need to do our part. Here's how: 
  • Teach your kids how to effectively resolve conflict either by actively discussing the topic, reading books together that deal with conflict and successful resolution, or modeling good resolution skills within your own relationships.
  • Discourage your children from spreading rumors and speaking badly about other people.  Have a ''no rumors'' rule in your home and stick to it—both adults and children.
  • Avoid glorifying popularity. 
  • Help your kids to be comfortable in their own skin from an early age (while, of course, maintaining a healthy lifestyle).  Allow them to create their own identities.  Remember that too much focus on outward characteristics (appearance, dieting) over valuable internal characteristics (positive self-worth, practicing kindness and empathy) can lead to later problems (depression, anxiety and eating disorders).
One disclaimer: Parenting is not easy, and every child is different.  Every school is different.  It is not the end of the world if your child doesn’t want to be what you want them to be (all my husband wanted was for my son to play hockey; all my son wanted to do was not play hockey…it was a rough road for a while). 

The good news is that you are reading about parenting, so you must be invested in your child’s well-being.  The bottom line: Encourage good behavior from your children and behave well yourself!  And think about your own run-ins with popularity.  What were those popular kids like when you went to school?  What adjectives would you use to describe the ''popular'' kids? Think of how you can use your experiences to help your kids get through their own social rough patches.

Do you have kids who are overly concerned about being popular, or are doing what others think they should do?  How can you change your child's perception of popularity?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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BELLAMEMAW 2/11/2019
I know grown men and women that are STILL striving to be popular and it's really very sad. Makes me wonder what's going on in their lives/hearts/minds.

Good article. Report
The one thing I love about this is that she admits that social science proves nothing. That doesn't mean it isn't useful and I'm sure she means that as well. All it can do is provide statistical exercises that can be manipulated by applying the variables in different ways. This is also applied to nutritional research when you see headlines that read people who eat this food live longer even if everything else they eat is unhealthy. Report
yes. lets all teach our kids to strive for as much mediocrity as possible. lets give everyone participation awards. lets punish and demonize children with unbridled vision and drive. in short, the parable of the sour grapes. and, btw, no, I wan't "popular" either.....but I have no remorse, angst, nor envy for those who are. we need ALL kinds of people....including the "popular". btw, who determines what and who is popular? very archaic term. Report
Teach your kids not to give a toss what other people think. This starts by concentrating on important things, like family and academics, and not making "socialization" a priority.
All the popular girls in my high school married young and had babies early. Most of the unpopular girls, including myself, went on to university and got careers. Same with the guys. The popular ones peaked early and still look on their high school days as the best time of their lives. That is sad. I am still living mine. Report
I'm a bit surprised that the researchers didn't realize this ages ago. In order to maintain their popularity, kids in the popular groups are necessarily exclusive... which means a lot of people probably don't like them. The last people I would have wanted to be friends with at school were the popular kids! Report
Perhaps if kids were made aware not only of how other people's behavior makes them feel, but also to be sensitive to how it affects other people to be socially excluded because they are not "popular", then there may be less dreadful events such as the incident in Colorado. Report
Interesting thoughts.

Those things that are so important when we are children - and they really meant nothing at all.
Also it amazes me how many adults still carry those scars and resentments. Report
have the confidence to be popular with yourself. Report
My dad was a detective in a large metropolitan area (No, Not Metropolis), amd as such he was involved with some seriously bad people. After arrests in major cases, we would often move from one side of the county to another, never living in the same town twice.

As a consequence, I attended 13 schools prior to graduating from high school, and spent my final three years at the same school.

Every year, I was the "new kid" and almost always it was in some portion of the school year. In the early years, the girls would not care for me because I ws very intelligent and always scored at or near the top - even in later years when I was in advanced or college prep courses.

As I got farther along in school, the girls mostly ignored me and the guys would always challenge me to find where I would fit in the macho pecking order. After the first year of trying to avoid fights and confrontations when I went to a new school, I deliberately looked for the bully and went directly at him. I had found out bullies were mostly cowards and if one fought back or challenged him, he would leave you alone and the other guys tolerated me being among the group at the top of the macho order. I never took advantage of my "place".

As a result of all of the moving, I never really became "socialized".

I wasn't bad looking (I was told this by female friends who, if I asked them out, told me, "You're such a nice guy, but I don't think of you like a "boyfriend". Can't we just be friends?" I played football and lettered and I ran track in the spring (I didn't have the weight problem I now battle).

Not having parents who had "money"or social position, I didn't fit in with the "Social Crowd". I was on the perimeter of the "Jock squad, but because I also took challenging classes and was in class with the nerds, I didn't quite fit anywhere.

Popular? Never. Liked? Somewhat, with reservations.

How did it affect me as an adult?

I went to a couple of years of college and was then drafted. I was chosen to go to OCS (Officers Candidate School) and graduated as a 2LT. I was an aggressive, hard charging officer - made 1LT in a year and CPT in a year. With my military reputation established, I started to become socialized (I guess I was in a position somewhat like being a "jock", and that attracted young women).

I married at 26 (41 years and still just one wife) and I have two sons. My oldest is like I used to be, and my youngest never saw a person he didn't like. When he was about five and had just moved to a different state for a promotion, the first time we went to the new grocery store, he started chatting up the grocery clerk. By the time we were checked out, he knew her name, the fact she was married, the names of her two children, their ages and their dogs name and breed.

While not being part of the "Social crowd" in school, he was liked and popular with them, and popular with all the kids in school because he was always friendly, listened to them individually and treated them all as His friends.

I believe that there are as many reasons for kids (and adults) to be liked as there are people in a whole community.

CHERYLMAL is exactly right in her assesment of the high school "tables." I worked on the school yearbooks from grade 7 thru 12, and although I was invisible to many people, I knew everyone by name, face, and "table."

Sad to see, even through the years to my class's 40th reunion, the seating was still the same. However, by now, there have been an unproportional numbers of deaths at tables 1 and 2, including several suicides. Most everyone at tables 3 and 4 are highly successful, with a satisfying number of millionaires!!!

I think that shows what we all know in our hearts, that hard work, persistance, and fair play will give us the best life. Report
We have had the "silver rule" in our house since my 10 year old was in first grade: "if you don't see it with your own eyes, or hear it with your own ears, then don't repeat it." Great article, not lots of answers, but certainly is reassuring to see these issues exist as the norm. Not that that is good, but it is in a "misery loves company" sort of way... Report
Fantastic article! Report
Great article! The difference between popularity and being liked makes perfect sense. I don't think I would have been considered popular but I like to think I was liked. Most of my friends were the same and I think we all turned out well 15 years later. The "popular" kids on the other hand, seemed to have problems after graduation. Big fish in little bowls aren't big fish in the ocean. Report
I have never thought there was any difference between popular and liked. I think that back when I was in school they were all the same. I know that the jocks were popular. I wasn't either, so I couldn't say. Report
I think this topic is so interesting, I never thought before about the difference between popularity and being liked. But after thinking about it, its a great lesson to keep in mind when talking with your kids about social situations where issues of popularity are involved. With a 1st and 3rd grader, its starting to be a part of my kids lives. In fact, my daughter had a group of girls in her Kindergarten class that required intervention by the teachers because there were some very 'poplar/socially domineering' girls in the class who were not kind to each other. The teachers said this was young to see the behavior, but it wasn't the first time they'd seen it in Kindergarten either. I was shocked it started so young.

Maybe as interesting is how this applies to 'grownups'. The socially aggressive kids can grow up to be socially aggressive adults! I've seen 'bullying' or socially exclusionary behavior in the workplace, in communities, in Moms groups etc and they appear to be very similar to the dynamics of kids!

Good topic :-)
I talked to my 14yo DD about this article yesterday and she already gets that being popular is more about social domination that having truly good friends. Fortunately she doesn't give a hoot about being popular. :-) Report
It is, and always has been, a mystery to me why people like me and who..
I have learned to accept the likers and treat them with kindness weather I like them back or not. Report
I went to 6 different schools from grades 7-12. Eventually I learned that you could see the hierarchy of popularity in the lunchroom, by table. Table one was the kids who were so rich and snobby that nobody really liked them but themselves, table two was the popular kids who were busy with school activities and sports. You had to prove yourself to sit with them... Table three was full of average kids. Table four was full of kind of invisible kids, maybe nerdy or not well dressed, perhaps belonging to different clubs in school not considered cool, otherwise kind of misfits, but nice. They would be the ones to reach out to the new kid (me!). The last two tables were full of stoners and rebels. It was the same in every school.

I would always enter at table four because I could, and shoot for getting to know the kids in table two, who were still nice, but it took a bit of time. I made it a point to stay friends with everyone because I knew what it was like to be that new kid.

It would be great if all kids got the kind of perspective put forth in this blog. Turns out high school is not the end-all, be-all! It's not a good thing to peak while you're there. Report
Long time since high school but I was never popular with the "In"crowd and that suited my just fine as I was really into Horses not boys (that came later). I had a few friends and some really fine horsey friends.Never felt the need to compete with other kids to be popular or cool but just for them to accept me for myself!! No jock here!!! Report
I was "unpopular" picked on and bullied through most of my school years. When I had a child I encouraged her to see the person not the facade. I'm pleased to say I have a child that is her own person. Perhaps I had those experiences so she wouldn't. Regardless (in my humble opinion) I have raised an exceptional young woman who has a variety of friends. Bottom line the old adage of treating others the way we want to be treated still applies. Report
I remember when I first realized what "popular" really meant. I was in high school and always looked at the "popular" kids and wondered how I could be that way, but I started noticing a big difference. Some of the "popular" kids wore the latest styles and seemed to have it all together. A big thing for me was high heels. The "popular" girls wore high heels and I didn't. At the same time I saw that these girls were snobby and mean. There was another group of girls who were friendly to everyone, wore typical clothes and flat shoes even if they were short like me. I decided then that I would stop trying to be what I wasn't and start trying to be like the true "popular" girls.

Our oldest son was always outgoing and friendly. You would have thought he was popular in high school. Everyone knew him and liked him, but he was one of the loneliest popular kids ever. Report
Duh. Domino's is possibly the most "popular" pizza but, it's probably not the most authentic pie. Report
I often wondered why I wasn't popular, still do sometimes. Guess I'll never know for sure, but enjoyed reading your blog anyway:)

My kids grew up with better a better relationship with themselves than I did, but like most parents I made mistakes :( Report
My five children were all tall and nice looking so they were all "popular|" kids in school because I put the most importance on their being the smartest and best prepared in class. They always knew the lesson and could help other kids who were having problems. That helped them be "Popular" because they were friends to the kids who weren't doing the best. Also, I had them into swimming, JUDO, soccer and other sports, so they were good at P.E. class. Now they all find exercise easy and think nothing about working out. Report
This is a fantastic article. I notice today that so many parents themselves are still out there competing in the popularity contests and wielding that "power". Sometimes the parents are no better than their offspring. It would be so much better to offer the positive dialogues offered in this blog rather than being out their pushing their children in the popularity contests. I've noticed that our society is definitely going down the strong, agressive road, that more and more people are depressed and anxious. And I've noticed very little kindness while out in the stores and in public in general. It's all so sad that this is happening. Report
Good blog. I am forwarding this to my daughter as my granddaughter has already told me some playground stories regarding this topic. I have worked as a lunchroom aide and saw this many times myself. Report
My oldest is going into high school this year and my youngest next year so this is very timely for my house. Report
don't like the "loser" language in this article's title and its somewhat foggy insinuation. Report
My daughter is in kindergarten and she already tells me about the girls on the playground and how they behave. One minute they are friends and next minute they no longer want to play together. I like the messages you leave with the girls when you visit their schools. I believe also that we should teach our kids their is more substance to each person than how many friends they have.
We have the no gossip rule in our house with my son. As a victim of the rumor mill in middle school I shared my story, my pain and asked him to put himself in the place of a rumor being spread about him that was untrue. He never wants to hurt anyone so it was a good lesson very early in his development. As 20 year old, I am often amazed at how my son is ever the diplomat in social scences! Report
Wow ... took me a couple reads to figure out the implication was that any person not "popular" was therefore a "loser" - especially since the blog itself never once used the word loser except in the title.

I never gave a hoot about popularity in school - I liked who I liked and spent my time with them, regardless of their social status. Some were jocks/cheerleaders, some were brains, some were stoners, and some were special ed. Didn't matter. The quality of the person mattered.

Lucky for me, without any particular effort, my kids followed a similar track - finding quality in friends rather than seeking popularity.
I found it to be true in school the most popular kids were the loudest ones, some who bullied others, and made sure they were noticed.

Good article for kids and adults alike. Report
I love the connection b/w popularity and a drive for social dominance. Makes perfect sense. Report
This is great for 109 out of 110 kids. Mine is the 110. He has high functioning autism. The "rules" don't necessarily apply to these kids. I have explained to him that his social skills aren't the same as others and his words get "stuck". I tell him that when this happens, he should wait and take a few minutes. Then, when he's able, explain it to his friends. He probably isn't "popular", but he does fit most of the criteria:He loves to play sports - any sport, he is very smart, and he considers everyone to be his friend (and nearly everyone considers him a friend as well). He doesn't care about cliques and stereotypes, as he simply doesn't understand. To him, everyone is just a person, just like him, and the world would be better if everyone thought that way. Report
Great post! It never occurred to me that there is a difference between being popular and being liked. GIven the hazards of being popular -- bullying, arrogance, entitlement -- etc, I hope my kids are more liked than popular, and if they are popular, that they do it responsibly. The things I stress with my kids about relationships I keep very simple: always treat others as you'd like to be treated, and always be nice, because if they look deep down, being mean doesn't feel good to the person who's being mean as well as to the person on the receiving end. I can't imagine why, but they don't always heed my wisdom :-) You're right that parenting isn't easy. It's also very humbling. Report
This advice works for adults in the workplace, too. Report
I never thought myself as a popular/cool kid in school. Interesting enough, ran into people from high school who actually did think that of me. I never really ran with the popular/cool kids. Was able to hang out with them, but never knew that even they thought that I was cool. Reason apparently was because I honestly didn't care for the classifacion (I know, can't spell). That was the reason why they thought that I was cool, that I didn't care much what others thought and treated the cool kids, the stoners, trouble makers, mentally challenged, whatever the typecasting, all the same to me. Report