Stages of Life

The Problem with Popularity

Maybe you were popular in high school, maybe you weren’t. For the most part, as long as you had a few close friends that you could be vulnerable and open with, chances are you came out okay. You probably entered adulthood with some solid relationship skills that have served you well. High school was so long ago; aside from that nightmarish time you were in ninth grade Algebra, grasping for the answer to an excruciatingly hard problem while the cool kids stared at you for an eternity, all is water under the bridge. 

Cut to parenthood, when suddenly your teen’s popularity is almost as much cause for distress as yours had once been. If they are popular you’re probably concerned about their group of friends and whether they are feeling social pressure. If they’re not popular you worry about their self-esteem and happiness. And while we may have long forgotten about the cool kids and what made them so cool in the first place, it’s worth taking a closer look at popularity in order to understand how better to guide our children through the gauntlet of social circles.

There are two aspects of popularity: status and likability. From a kabbalistic point of view popularity is ego driven, while likability is related to kindness and sharing. Kids who have status and are likable on some level are popular. And as such, those kids have influence. They are often seen as leaders in their circles and in the school.

But what does it mean to be a true leader?

We often think of leadership on a large scale. Strong leaders become politicians, activists, and judges. They lead movements and revolutions. They launch foundations or go into business for themselves. Yet, strong leaders don’t always end up in the public sphere. On a small scale, they have the self-esteem to make good choices and stand up for what’s right, even when it is unpopular.

A recent study conducted by the University of Virginia tracked friendships between teens ages 15 to 25 years old. Psychologists found that having one or two friends with a deeper connection was far better than having a large group of shallow friends. Teens who had meaningful friendships were more self-confident and generally happier, regardless of popularity. Those who had smaller social networks, but better friends also reported having less anxiety, less depression, and a higher sense of self-worth.

Note: these are precisely the qualities strong leaders – and more importantly, good leaders – have, confidence and a positive outlook. In fact, the study’s lead author, Rachel Narr, makes an interesting case for those who were in the less popular crowd, stating, “We think that when kids are focused on being popular instead of forming those deep connections, that’s when we see problems. The kinds of things it takes to be well-known and appealing as a teenager often don’t last well long-term – drinking, sex, clothes. Being the pseudomature kid is ‘cool’ in high school, but by 25, it doesn’t set you apart and make you a leader in the same way.”

I don’t have to list the perils of high school for you. Most likely, you remember well the tough situations you and your peers found yourselves in. As if getting good grades and getting used to a rapidly changing body weren’t enough, teens feel incredible pressure to fit in from both their fellow students and the adults around them. The status of popularity seems to offer ease and opportunity. And we want so badly for our kids to have a trauma-free transition to adulthood. Yet, being a cool kid doesn’t always translate into success beyond our high school years and they are better served when we emphasize what is really important in life, that is, kindness and sharing.

As parents, it’s not our job to shield our children from the tough stuff. Even if we could, we would be robbing them of important life lessons meant to challenge them and spark spiritual growth. We are better off instilling positive values and giving them the tools to make decisions aligned with their core beliefs and the greater good, to embrace a spirit of sharing, and to be kind to others.

My kids are all opposite of my sign. Every single one of them has a big personality. They are decisive, opinionated, stubborn, hard to refuse. And while these qualities are not without their challenges, especially for me as a parent, they are ultimately what will make them strong, independent leaders, the kinds of kids who are secure enough in their unique Light to share of themselves wholeheartedly with the world.

Each of my teenaged kids has a friend or two they made as small children – a friendship kindled over movies, summertime popsicles, adventures, and too many play dates to count. These friendships have remained strong despite moves to new schools and new cities, and all the usual trials of childhood. It seems the same stubbornness that threatens to wear down my resolve when they are testing boundaries is the same thing that has fortified beautiful relationships in their lives with kids I adore like family.

I take comfort in these relationships, because they aren’t fly-by-night friendships based on status seeking or the quest to fit in. They are genuine and fulfilling. These friends have made my children kinder and more comfortable with themselves. Like their relationships with their siblings, these friendships have taught them to share more readily, to be generous of heart and spirit.

The truth is, they will be challenged and experience scrutiny. There will be moments when the desire to fit in becomes overwhelming. But if they already feel unconditionally loved, valued for who they are, and connected to deep and meaningful friendships, they are far less likely to engage in the risky behavior that comes with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Kids who value themselves and what they have to offer the world have the confidence to follow only their own true desires and be leaders of their own life path. 

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