In fifth grade I was cast out of my friend group, who had, to be fair, made it clear from the get-go that I wasn’t as cool as the rest of them. I thought nothing could hurt more than that year's insults about being too fat for this and too fat for that, but being ignored and alone during sixth grade was worse.
Things got better when my family moved to a new town, though, and by high school I felt comfortable as a relatively low-status kid, but one with friends who were also too jocky for the nerds and too nerdy for the jocks. We didn’t get invited to parties, and instead had a blast with dumb stunts, like stealing an “Open All Night” decal off a Taco Bell.
Connie Chang, a mom of three who’s now a writer in California, wasn’t popular growing up either. She was labeled as “too Chinese, too different,” she tells me. Now that her kids are in elementary school, she worries they’ll experience the same thing. But can she influence their popularity? As a mom myself, I wonder if it’s possible — or whether that’s even a good goal.
It depends what you mean by “popular,” says University of North Carolina psychologist Mitch Prinstein, author of the book Popular. Most of us think of status, but there are actually two types of popularity: status and likability. Status-seeking puts kids at a higher risk for over dependence on others, risky behavior, relationship problems and unhappiness, according to the research. On the flip side, likability creates a positive feedback loop with likable people usually treated better, which makes them more upbeat and more likely to be offered opportunities to practice social skills which makes them — you guessed it — even more likable. Over a lifetime, likability translates to better jobs, more stable relationships and much more, Prinstein says. So how do we encourage our kids to pursue likability?
First off, a lot of it is beyond anyone's control. There are some parts of it we can’t do anything about, like the facial symmetry behind the physical attractiveness that makes people more likable.
Another inheritable trait, behavioral inhibition, determines to what degree we’re up for trying new things socially. (This isn’t to be confused with extraversion, which Prinstein tells me is not determinative of popularity.) Prinstein says some of likability “has to do with whether a child possesses the background or characteristics that fit within a value system of that particular society.” The specters of racism and xenophobia loom large in this country, and Chang wasn’t imagining things when she says her likability was influenced by “stinky Chinese food in a thermos.”
Gendered expectations also impact likability. Despite a growing understanding that gender is not binary, society still encourages girls to be “empathetic and emotionally disclosing” with their likability hinging on an ability to form and maintain one-on-one friendships, Prinstein says, whereas boys are perceived as more likable when they demonstrate dominance, leadership or a superior skill within a larger group. (That’s one reason why the correspondence between likability and status is much higher in boys, he tells me.) So kids aren’t always to blame.
Parents aren’t either. Yet, there are learned behaviors and mental frameworks that impact kids’ likability, and once we know what they are, caregivers can make changes that might help in the long run.
I know most parents are maxed out right now, especially those with less privilege. There’s no shame in just focusing on keeping your child fed. But if you’re already worried about popularity and looking for a place to start, here are a few thoughts.
Try to be less critical.
“One of the factors that most strongly predicts who will be popular and who will be rejected is whether they are raised in an aggressive social environment,” Prinstein writes. Even when aggression temporarily pays off — like a teen getting what they want by threatening to end a friendship or spreading rumors — kids who behave aggressively tend to be less liked.
It’s a trait that’s often picked up from home. In one study, the more warmly mothers spoke of their children at age 5, the less aggressive their children were at age 7. The reverse also held: the more aggressive the 7-year-old, the more critical that mother was likely to have been two years earlier. (We’re stuck with a lot of data only on mothers, because parenting researchers have historically focused on female primary caregivers, but there’s no reason to think their findings are less applicable to involved dads, stepparents, grandparents and others.)
Additional research confirms that kids can become more warm, altruistic, kind and cooperative through exposure to role models with those qualities. So you can start by trying to be a little less critical and a little more agreeable yourself.
Avoid hostile attribution bias.
Let’s say there’s a situation where someone’s motivation can be interpreted in multiple ways — like the day I asked my daughter to get the broom and she didn’t even look up. My first impulse was to assume willful defiance, and I worked myself into quite an internal dither. She doesn’t respect me, I thought. She thinks I’m fit to be her maid. In reality, she hadn’t heard the request thanks to the auditory issues she’s experienced periodically since birth. I’d fallen prey to “hostile attribution bias,” the tendency to assume ill intent.
Mothers with this bias have been shown to be quicker to think their kids are being purposefully hostile; they’re also more likely to perceive other people as out to get their child, Prinstein says. It’s important to recognize this impulse and try to counter it, because parents with hostile attribution bias tend to raise kids who become paranoid and cynical, always finding someone to blame for life’s disappointments.
That doesn’t mean you have to be a Pollyanna though. One study showed that moms with positive social frames and those with anxious/lonely ones helped their children develop social skills. It’s just the hostile social frames that reliably corrode likability, Prinstein tells me.
Be emotionally attuned, but not too attuned.
“Some parents dominate, set stern limits and remain reserved, even stoic while playing with their children,” Prinstein writes. “Not surprisingly, their children behave in the same way when playing with others.” Adults need to model how our preferences and big feelings can be channeled in a way that makes others want to play, too.
That said, we can't be too emotionally attuned to our kids: “Having parents who are hypersensitive to their children’s emotions and overly protective is a strong predictor of unpopularity,” he added. The true key is secure attachment which combines reliability with autonomy. Kids who perceive a parent as a safe base, one they can come back to between bouts of independently exploring the world, grow up to experience interpersonal success more of the time than those who don’t.
Intervene in your kid's friendships just enough.
According to the research of Arizona State University psychologist Gary Ladd, it’s okay to help facilitate socializing by arranging playdates or highlighting the repercussions of not inviting someone to a birthday party. But as kids age, they should increasingly manage their own social lives. The same general advice applies to monitoring play: Start heavy-handed and then, as toddlers become preschoolers, step back a little so kids get practice working through conflict. With each successive year, we butt out a little more — when parents of middle school kids insert themselves into social interactions, research shows they're considered intrusive and do remarkable damage to kids’ popularity, Prinstein adds.
But we can't just leave kids to their own devices, right? That’s where Ladd’s third strategy comes in. No matter their age, be available to talk through social experiences, help manage feelings, problem-solve and then look back on how a plan worked out. Kids who learn this process of reflection tend to be the ones who not only become liked but also have higher levels of academic achievement.
Approach conversation as a time for give and take.
In one study, mothers who dropped their kids off to be researched were also observed. The women who chatted amicably had kids who acted in the same companionable way down the hall, Prinstein writes, whereas “moms who tried to dominate their conversations tended to have children who were also excessively self-focused in their interactions.”
In order to avoid stealing the spotlight, parents can be sure to ask questions at least as often as they make declarations. They can also initiate chats with kids about social interactions. In another study, “Those parents who spoke with their children about peers, reviewed the best qualities to look for in a friend, or discussed the best ways to act with others,” Prinstein says, “had kids who developed closer relationships within just a few months.”
This is especially important for children who already have a lot of conflict with peers or seem disinterested. It’s these kids, he says, “who will suffer from the worst manifestation of unpopularity, bullying.” Anti-bullying programs are definitely a good thing, but caregivers and schools should put equal focus on giving kids the skills needed to cope with derision and exclusion. That’s what comes next.
Instill the right attributional style.
Prinstein offers up a few questions: “Do you attribute negative life events to your own characteristics (‘I’m stupid’) that are both global (‘I can’t do anything right’) and stable (‘I will never do well at school’)?” That style is a one-way ticket to suffering, in part because it lowers one’s self-esteem and low self-esteem decreases likability. The healthier response, he says, is to blame these experiences on: 1) things that have nothing to do with you (“The test was poorly constructed”); 2) the specifics of a situation (“I don’t do well when tests use multiple choice”); or 3) changeable circumstances (“I would probably do better if I had more time to study”).
Of course kids need to take responsibility, but we don’t want “my bad” to be their lens for the world. If you’re the kind who apologizes for apologizing, the bad news is that parents “have a very significant influence on the kind of attributional style their children develop.” But there’s good news too: Attributional style is relatively easy to modify once you start paying attention to it.
Cultivate cultures that prioritize likability.
When you ask young American kids, the classmates they peg as most popular tend to be the same ones they select as most liked, yet for our teens, status and liability have only modest overlap. In China, though, “adolescents who had high status were often also those who were judged to be the most likable,” Prinstein writes.
You can’t up and move across the world or change a nation’s culture, or at least not quickly, but you can create a family culture of the things that make people likable: being cooperative, focusing on the positive, demonstrating creativity and generally going with the flow. (For additional tips, check out Melinda Wenner Moyer’s new book How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.) You can also help inch toward a school culture of “kindness is cool” by partnering with teachers and administrators to introduce or bolster social-emotional learning tools. This should include facilitating friendships across race, class, gender, ability and more.
Don’t ignore code-switching.
“When people are in a minority in a visible way, research shows a dynamic of having to maintain two different levels of likability at the same time,” Prinstein tells me. If you’re Black and there are other Black kids at your lunch table but none on your soccer team, for example, you might feel compelled to code-switch, changing your demeanor to fit in. Prinstein says we often talk to kids about likability in a way that “doesn’t recognize really salient and meaningful aspects of cultural identity.”
We also don’t acknowledge enough that white children who grow up in predominantly white communities “don’t really have to think about this at all, while for everyone else the process of ethnic identity is developing at the same time as the striving toward likability,” he says. Parents can turn to Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give as a phenomenal entry point for talking about these issues. Just acknowledging that “what makes you the highest status in your grade might simultaneously make you feel more distant from a cultural identity, and that’s a really tough thing,” can make a difference in how a child experiences their popularity, Prinstein says.
Talk about popularity.
In fact, conversation is likely the most important piece. “Perhaps the best parents can do is simply to teach their children about the two types of popularity,” Prinstein says. Let them know that neurochemicals drive adolescents to pursue status and base their self-esteem on others’ opinions. It’s worse for those at the extremes of popularity (both the popular and rejected worry a lot about how they’re perceived, according to new research from his team that has yet to be subjected to peer review).
But status isn’t what will make them happiest; high-quality friendships are. Kids who hear all this can reconceptualize popularity. Prinstein has received notes from teens across the country saying after reading Popular they felt relieved to not worry about their status, knowing that just being kind, cooperative, inclusive and otherwise pleasant to be around is the key to ultimately being liked. Make sure your kid knows that doing that shouldn’t mean compromising their identity though. Other studies have tied being proud of who you are, just owning it, to admiration and respect.
But if none of these efforts work, tell your kid to take heart. Research also points to silver linings for folks like me and Chang who experienced the anguish of low social status as adolescents: “Previously unpopular people are perceived by others as more empathetic and more sensitive in social situations,” Prinstein reports.
Chang says that makes sense: “Having been on the unpopular end of the spectrum has definitely made me wonder what might be going on in other people’s lives to make them appear weird or different.”
It’s also important to teach kids when to call bullshit on likability. I worry about compounding societal messaging my daughters receive around the need to be accommodating, rather than “bossy.” Likability coaching thus has to be about “helping kids to assert themselves, their own needs, their own rights, their own identities, in ways that do not simultaneously offend others or create hierarchies,” Prinstein says. So I’ll teach my kids to do that, but also, that being more likable is not a worthy goal when it requires sacrificing one’s ambition to the patriarchy.
And likability is never more important than doing the right thing. Luckily, there’s a ton of overlap between likability and being a good person. Prinstein is quick to point out that making the world a better place requires both learning “how to interact with others in ways that make them feel happy, valued, included and respected” and continuing to grow via that likability feedback loop: The more likable you are, the more chances you get to interact, adapt and get better.
Which brings us to the single most important information to convey to children: “Being disliked in the past will affect us only inasmuch as we allow it to dictate how we behave today,” Prinstein writes. And if your kid does their best and still doesn’t feel liked, remember that one day they will find someone with whom to steal a Taco Bell decal while eating Chinese food out of a thermos.