Three girls walking behind my oldest daughter were pointing and snickering: “Look at her hair!” That’s when I noticed the matted snarl at the back, where she couldn’t reach when she’d proudly combed it herself that morning. She was 2. It was the first day of preschool.
None of us wants to see our child laughed at. Or left on the playground sidelines. Not invited to birthday parties.
So we wonder (and yeah, worry): Does he or she have friends? Enough friends? The right friends?
What makes a kid popular…or an outcast?
Even before kindergarten, some kids bop to the top of the social order, while others are shunned. By fourth grade, how classmates rank their peers can deeply influence the high-school years and beyond, says child psychologist Mitch Prinstein, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of the new book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.
Parents can hugely influence their child’s spot in the social pecking order, he says.
But not by supplying the hottest toys and the cutest clothes, throwing the best and biggest parties, or helping them become precociously charming YouTube stars.
Those are measures of status. A different type of popularity gives kids long-term happiness and success, Prinstein’s research shows: likability.
Kids like kids who make them feel good.
Likable kids are trusted, helpful, polite, kind, usually in a good mood, and smart (but not too obvious about it). Good sharers and rule-followers, rather than disrupters, they’re the kids who can talk easily to others and creatively smooth over awkward social situations.
Here’s the really compelling reason to want a likable kid over one who racks up the most social-media likes: In grades 3 to 6, those who are picked by their peers as being the most likable are the most likely to be employed and promoted 10 years later, Penn State research shows. They also have better friendships and romantic partnerships.
Kids whose popularity is based on status, on the other hand, tend not to fare so well. Those queen-bee cheerleaders, supercool jocks, and edgy trendsetters—the types who gain high status in adolescence—often wind up less happy. As adults, they have worse self-esteem, use more alcohol (and have more DUIs), experience more depression and anxiety, and have crummier relationships.
Obviously, cheerleaders and trendsetters can also be genuinely nice and well liked. “Popularity is hard to recipe,” Prinstein says.
But some kids have an easier time than others. Why?
“Popularity is largely predicted by how we teach kids to behave,” he says.
It starts before our babies even know what other babies are. They need to build what social scientists call “secure attachments” with us. As we respond to them quickly, talk to them (which teaches conversational turn-taking), and play with them in loving back-and-forth ways, we build up their emotional intelligence. Even rough-and-tumble play teaches young kids how to express and manage their feelings.
Once they discover peers, they need more specific help from us. “Kids need to learn from their parents how to navigate the increasingly complex social worlds as they get older,” Prinstein told me.
Among the secrets his research and others’ has revealed:
Start stepping back at playdates.
It’s absolutely critical to expose kids to lots of new situations—from playdates to kindermusic to toddler day care. “The more kids are experiencing, the more they’re learning,” Prinstein says. Even bad interactions—say, being made fun of for a bad hair day!—are learning situations, he adds.
Of course, they need our help to find those first friends and outings. But by age 3, kids—not parents—should be picking which peers they most want to play with, says Arizona State University psychologist Gary Ladd. By 4, they should be choosing the activities. By 5 or 6, they should start taking the lead in setting up the playtime. It’s called “scaffolding”—we provide only as much support as is needed at each step, until kids learn to stand on their own.
Actively monitor social outings—but from afar.
After age 2, hovering during playdates hurts more than helps. It’s tempting to insert ourselves into kids’ social dramas, large and small, but more and more of this should happen off-stage as they get older.
What works better: talking about how it went afterward. “Ask, ‘What happened? Were there arguments? How were they resolved? How did you feel?’ Really teach kids how to think about social interactions,” Prinstein says.
Coach kids on how to deal with social snags.
It’s not enough to guide kids with general advice (“Don’t hit,” “Say please”). Walk through how to behave in specific situations. Role-play or suggest better ways to handle problems, like Noah grabbing your truck or Emma snubbing you at the park. Research shows that when parents talk to their preschoolers about how to interact with peers at least once every other day, the kids tend to be more popular.
Act fast on aggression.
Yet another reason to nip hitting and kicking, biting, and other antisocial behaviors early: “It’s the number-one way not to be liked,” Prinstein told me.
Praise kindness—and other pro-social behaviors you see.
“Parents have a remarkable ability to reinforce and support those things that they like most in their children,” he says. “Even though teens do everything in their power to make it seem like they don’t like or care what we say, they absolutely do!”
How? Be sure they know what you appreciate. “My wife and I really care about having kids who pay attention to others’ needs, that they feel welcome and included, are kind to others,” says Prinstein, whose kids are 5 and 7. “We really use praise when they show acts of friendship over selfishness.”
Keep the focus on likability—even in the tricky preteen years.
At age 9, the best-liked kids are high achievers. By 15, though, many of them show steep declines in emotional well-being. That’s because tweens and teens start paying more attention to what their peers say is cool than what teachers and other grown-ups value. “If a preteen talks about studying hard, it brands them as a teacher’s pet,” Prinstein says.
They need us to be that lone voice gently but consistently explaining the difference between status and likability. Until it’s pointed out, they might not even realize those are two different things!Adolescent girls are especially at risk because they’re socialized to value personal relationships at the same time they’re developing their sense of identity. So, he says, they look to those with highest status as markers of what to value—being gorgeous, fit, assertive, able to navigate the social world. “Some girls feel that unless they’re able to achieve all that they’ll never feel good enough and they always compare and fall short. That’s damaging and dangerous,” he says.
And yeah, it’s harder than ever in a Kardashian culture driven by nonstop digital “likes.”
Beware accidentally rewarding a status mentality.
Those alpha-girls need to be reminded of the difference between likability and status too. They need to hear that their value doesn’t come from people paying attention to them and envying them. It feels good—our brains are wired to love adulation—but in the long run it’s hard to sustain.
Kids are getting messages from so many places that their value is measured by their social-media fame and visibility, Prinstein adds. “Parents’ role is to be perhaps the only voice that can counter that.”
“Saying things like ‘Oh, you’re the best looking!’ or ‘My daughter was the first one asked to prom!’ or friending everyone on social media tells kids that’s what you value most,” he says.
Better for them to hear you brag on kids who risked their status by helping an underdog or being kind to a bullied child. That sends a very different message about what’s admirable.
When kids have trouble, step in…carefully.
Kids of any age who are overly aggressive, bossy, or clingy may need extra help with basic social skills that can raise their likability. Not by stepping in and micromanaging their activities—the older they get, the more that looks weird and backfires—but by talking before and after. Talk about the best qualities to look for in a friend, how to act, and what to say around others. One study found that when parents did these things with their teenagers who were meeting new peers, the kids developed closer relationships in just a few months.
Start with small social goals for kids who seem on the outs. They don’t need to be friends with the whole school; having just one good friendship can provide a solid foundation that leads to the next one, Prinstein says.
Finally, remember that your kid ISN’T you!
If you’ve been having flashbacks of your own high-school life while reading this, you know how enduring early social struggles can be. “Our tendency is to repeat our social experiences, including the ways we choose to parent, in ways that match our high-school experience,” Prinstein says.
The biggest mistake, he says: Watching our children interact with others and assuming that there’s hostile intent—that they’re being rejected or treated aggressively, say—because that’s how we were once treated, when that’s not what’s happening at all. “That teaches kids to expect those behaviors from the world around them,” he warns.
Many “Most Likely to Succeeds”
Not every kid can reign at the top of the most-copied, most-liked, most-followed, most-powerful heap anyway. It’s the very nature of a hierarchy for members to be ranked by their status—so some go up, some go down, and none of the chase is particularly healthy.
But every kid CAN be more likable—and that’s the path, for all of them, to winning the prize in that most important popularity contest, a happy life.