Saturday, June 12, 2010

What is Popularity, Really?

We have a skewed perception of popluarity in this country. We see teen girls who have it all - money, clothes, boyfriends and a circle of equally stunning friends surrounding them and assume they are the popular clique and that everyone strives to be a part of them.

But how did they get there? What did it take to rise to the top when they were in the formative elementary years? Besides the obvious - moms who take them shopping to the "teen" stores, let them stay up late, buy them laptops, iPods, cell phones, encourage boyfriends and discourage playing with toys?

For many of the "popular girls" they had to start out their school years by being a leader. And a leader has to have followers, so in order to obtain those followers they had to come up with a set of "rules." These are the girls who form the exclusive clubs that they only let certain girls be a part of. They are the girls who hand out bracelets to their chosen cool friends and say they are in the club. They are the girls who will turn others against the kids who are not considered cool (by them) with gossip, lies and shunning. They will insult their close friends, tell them things like, "I won't be your friend anymore if you don't do this for me" and have girls crawling all over each other to win and keep their approval. In essence, these are the elementary school's "mean" girls or bullies. They are the ones who we will call "popular" as they get older.

Last I checked, the meaning of the word popular was to be well liked by a group. Does anyone really like these girls? I know the kids who are getting stomped on by them are not great fans of theirs and I suspect their close friends are so nervous about what move they are going to make next that they never become comfortable enough to honestly say they "like" them.

My fourth grader, Emma has become the target of one such popular group. The leader of the group - Maggie - has been the one in class who seems to set all the rules. She was responsible for the shunning of another girl earlier this year by telling everyone in the 4th grade not to be her friend or to sit by her. Emma sat by her anyway and the next thing you know, Emma is now being shunned. Maggie and her cronies have even gone up to Emma's closest friends at recess,while they were playing with Emma, pulled them away from her and told them that they shouldn't be Emma's friend anymore because no one likes her.

And now whenever there is a group activity, no one from Maggie's group will allow Emma to join in with them. Even Emma's supposed BFF in the class goes along with Maggie and never even utters a word of support for her friend. She even had the nerve to say to Emma one day that she thinks Maggie is "wicked nice" and she's my friend now.

There is a rainbow in all this, though. Another girl, Ally has come to Emma's aid. This girl is a long standing casual friend of Emma's. She invites Emma to join her group even if their group is full when Emma is not allowed in any other groups. She asks Emma to sit next to her at lunch or to sit next to her during a project even when other girls are telling her to move. She even said to one girl, "She's not moving, she's staying right here." And she is helping Emma to get back in a respectful way to these girls. One day Emma was responsible for carrying the lunch crate with all the lunch boxes in it to the cafeteria. She asked one of the girls for help and the girl gave her a look and said no, then tossed her lunchbox onto the top of the others and ran away. Ally offered to help and then said slyly, "I have an idea."

She then proceded to take the other girl's lunchbox off the top, leave it in the middle of the hallway and head off to the cafeteria. This other girl had to run back and get it and everyone ended up laughing about it. For once Emma felt included in the banter.

But what do we do about the unnecessary shunning? I have spoken to the teacher about it and she moved the girls around in class. She assured me that next year those girls will not be in Emma's class. But is it enough? The risks of taking it to the administration probably do not outweigh the benefits. On one hand, I'd like to see this girl punished for what she's doing to girls, but on the other hand, I don't want my daughter to be affected even more by me speaking up. It's a tough situation. The teacher is aware and is watching out for it. . .so hopefully that will be enough.

So when I explain popularity to my little girl, I tell her that Maggie is NOT popular just because someone has labeled her that way. The truly popular girls are the ones who are respected by everyone for their honesty, integrity, friendliness and happiness. They will be the ones admired and well-liked. No matter how "popular" everyone thinks the mean girls are, they are not really popular if everyone is scared of them and talks badly about them.

In my school (ok, 20 + years ago!) the girls who were elected Homecoming and Royalty Queens were not the girls who wore the right clothes, went to the right parties or were dating 24 year olds. The girls who were honored with that title were the ones that were nice to everyone, never had harsh words for people and never gossiped or shunned anyone. They had strong family lives and even chose family time over going to THE party of the year. They didn't strive for popularity or rush out to buy the right styles (or SillyBandz for 4th grade!). Everyone liked them and respected them for who they were. That is what popularity is all about.

Treat others how you want to be treated and life will turn out ok. . .Promise.

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