I was never the popular child growing up. Far from it. I could never figure out how to fold the cuffs of my pants and stuff them into my slouchy socks. My hair, which I could never get as high as was stylish (although I’ve gotta say, I’m happy now that I don’t have any of those embarrassing yearbook pictures for my kids to laugh at!), was made fun of.
And some people saw me as standoffish because I never could figure out how to just walk up to a stranger in a crowd, introduce myself and make a new friend.
My older daughter Alex is very much like me when it comes to the whole popularity thing. She enjoys school and has a few good friends, but she isn’t one of the “popular girls.”
An in-demand daughter
So, it was a surprise when my younger daughter, Wendy, started school and immediately became more in-demand among the little girls than the Disney princesses. Moms lined up to get their daughters playdates with Wendy. I would watch her classmates trail behind her on the playground like a line of ducklings behind their mom. I hid my smile on a recent car ride home when my second grader asked her older sister at what age the popular lunch tables start because, in her words:
“I’m pretty sure I’m one of the popular kids.”
This whole popularity thing poses a bit of a conundrum for me. Honestly, my instinct, based on my personality and on being bullied by popular kids as a child, is to devalue popularity.
It comes naturally to me to tell my kids that being popular isn’t important, that academics are more important at school, and even that the popular kids aren’t the happiest kids.
And, if both of my daughters were like me, I probably wouldn’t think twice about giving them that message.
Popular doesn’t = mean
But having a daughter who is not only popular but also sweet and kind and loving to her friends and teachers is forcing me to do a bit of critical thinking and re-evaluate my knee jerk reaction to the idea of popularity. Maybe all the popular girls aren’t necessarily mean girls because Wendy certainly isn’t. She’s just outgoing and extroverted and loves being around a lot of people.
I’m a bit humbled to realize that my perspective has been discriminatory.
It’s always seemed kind of silly to me to think of there being discrimination against popular people. They’re popular. The ones who are treated unfairly are those who aren’t popular, right?
But that’s not the case. Of course it’s wrong for a popular child to pick on an unpopular child because she’s not wearing the latest style of clothing or because he’s not interested in sports.
But isn’t it just as wrong for the unpopular kids to gossip about a popular girl and to assume that she’s shallow and superficial just because she’s conventionally pretty and makes friends easily?
Making assumptions and judgments
Honestly, I’m ashamed to admit that I never thought about this before I had a popular child of my own. I now realize that my inability to understand that all people, regardless of their degree of popularity, deserve to be judged on their character, indicates a lack of empathy on my part.
I also need to come to terms with my biases because I want to completely avoid making Wendy feel in any way bad for who she is. She’s not a mean girl just because she’s popular. She’s not shallow because she’s interested in fashion. And there’s nothing inherently superior about having a more reserved and introverted personality.
And I have to make sure to be conscious about relaying these messages to Wendy because it doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t even have to think about praising Alex for what a great writer she is and commiserating with her when it seems difficult to make friends; it comes naturally to me because I’m the same way.
But it’s important to build up Wendy’s self esteem, too, and to let her know that her mother values the things she excels at and that I don’t need her to be good at the things I’m good at. I don’t want her to feel like she needs to change who she is to be an important part of our family.
So, I’m going to continue to marvel at Wendy’s effortlessly full social calendar. I’m going to work to cultivate an interest in the latest seven-year-old fashions, and I’m going to celebrate Wendy for the smart, beautiful, happy person she is. And I’m betting that she’s going to continue to teach me a thing or two on this journey.
Amy Schwabe is the editor of MetroParent Magazine in Milwaukee, and the mom of two girls. You can follow MetroParent on Facebook and listen to Amy and her co-host Matt Colby commiserate about raising daughters on their podcast, “I’m gonna count to 3.”