I don’t particularly enjoy church, so I don’t go, but my wife does and she takes the kids every Sunday. My daughter has been volunteering to help babysit the toddlers during the first service, and on those weeks, I take her there and drop her off. When I arrive too early (she doesn’t like to go in until she has to) I end up driving around the parking lot with her until the exact time. We chat. The other morning, while driving around the parking lot to waste time, my daughter spotted some little girl coming in and said, “Ugh, it’s Cindy. I don’t like her. You can tell she’s going to be one of the popular girls.”
I thought about that for a second and then asked, “what defines a popular girl?” Because I wanted to know what she thought it meant, although I suspected I already knew. “Do you mean someone who is going to be pretty, but makes fun of other people, mocks them, and generally makes anyone she doesn’t like miserable?”
To this, she replied in the affirmative. To her, that’s what a popular girl is, and she seemed surprised I didn’t know this (not that I didn’t, I was just verifying her perceptions on this issue). That’s pretty much my opinion on popularity as well, and her answer made me consider what makes popular people popular. It’s an interesting topic.
In children, popularity is different than it is for adults. It’s more concrete and discernible for children. As adults, I think most of us seldom think of or consider “popularity” anymore. We have a circle of friends – or “acquaintances” – or co-workers – or just people we know. And if we think about popularity at all, it’s more about our popularity in a specific group and more along the lines of how others perceive or value us. In other words, individual relationships between specific people. We’re still social animals, but the pool we swim in is smaller in that regard simply because our exposure to other people is far more limited. Our exposure is limited to our environment, and our environment is determined by our lives. We find like minded people because they do the same things we do, enjoy the same entertainment. But for children, who exist in a school environment, that’s not entirely established yet. They swim in an enormous pool with shifting tides.
Those children who are nice to others aren’t necessarily popular in school environments. It might happen that they are, but more frequently, it is those children who possess the power to run others down that become popular. It’s a negative rather than a positive that enforces popularity. They become popular out of fear. Being friends with them is a defense for the less popular. For the less popular, being friends with a popular child is an investment in the hope that this will then prevent or dissuade the popular child from seeking to destroy them via character assassination. They hope to avoid being run down, and mocked either overtly or covertly. Popularity maintenance isn’t a positive thing in youth, it’s a negative thing. Being popular frequently means that an individual is feared by those who are less popular. The popular children have influence and power among their peers, and it’s a use it or lose it situation. If they don’t occasionally rip someone apart, they risk slowly losing power.
You might think this is limited to girls, but it isn’t. Boys have the same type of pecking order, its simply less covert and more up-front. The boys are more likely to call each other names to their faces and less likely to discuss someone when they aren’t present. They desire an immediate reaction, a sadistic form of feedback. The girls are more likely to run someone down when they’re not around. They want the reaction of their peers more than the target. They want to manipulate the opinions of others and witness the reaction to that effect as it ripples through the rumor mill. It works both ways, of course, but this is the statistically more likely behavior between genders. It all boils down to non-physical bullying though.
What would it be like, I wonder, if the popular kids were those kids who never talked badly about someone? What if the kids who were popular were the “nice” kids who defended others when they were put down, who tried to increase the self-esteem of others rather than destroy it? What if, instead of a negative feedback enforcement, popularity became a positive feedback enforcement? How could we ever make it thus? Our influence of youth is tenuous and unpredictable. They pay far more attention to their peers and to media than they do to their parents. And if you attempt to isolate them from that, you’re only crippling them, or so I believe. I know many who encapsulate their children, seeking to isolate them from media in an attempt to influence them, mitigate their exposure to experiences that they determine are negative. That’s a personal parenting decision, and I don’t judge them for doing it, but it isn’t my way. I don’t let them watch just anything, mind you, I do draw the line. But if a pop song contains a few expletives, or a movie makes a drug reference, or a video game involves shooting bloody zombies, I’m not going to censor it. I want my adult kids to be able to see others from the inside and accept them from the outside. That means living in both worlds – the real and the illusionary. They get to decide where they want to walk.
When I look at the school system today, I think the units – the classes – the groups – should be smaller and more focused. Interests should be identified earlier and promoted. Groups should be analyzed and created for like-minded interests. Of course, all of this takes money and time and work. How do you remove popularity as a negative from the equation? Online schools can make that possible, and we’ve begun experimenting with that, but people learn in different ways. Some are tactile learners. Some are visual learners. Some are auditory learners. Some need the structure of social interaction and some do not. Some have no motivation and won’t do anything they don’t consider fun unless they’re forced to engage in it. Others are quit interested in learning, and will do so on their own without prompting. Most fall somewhere in-between depending on subject. Future high schools will likely be composed of a mixture of physical classrooms and online classrooms. Teachers will have both online and offline students. Social pressures will be managed in this regard – allowing students to withdraw from them at will. If a student is having a problem in a class socially, they can detach to an online version of the class. That may be in the school’s study hall or computer lab or library. You can imagine giving them cubicles to use, places where they can simply take the class by themselves if they have another offline class coming up and can’t leave the school. It could even be that a “classroom” won’t exist anymore. Students will be given a cubical, and take all their classes from that one location.
What will popularity mean in the schools of the future? Maybe, someday, it will become a good thing? Maybe, someday, it will be the good students.