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Birth of the Cool

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It starts so early. On the yard at my son’s preschool during pickups and drop-offs, I already see cliques, social dominance, rejection, and popularity. One 4-year-old is clearly ring-leading a group of fellow classmates over a water table: shouting orders, making up the rules, and critiquing everyone’s playtime. Another appears aimless and slightly disconnected as he pushes a shopping cart up and down the pavement.

It’s natural to want our children to be liked, to have friends, and to feel comfortable in a group. As parents we organize play dates, we teach sharing and communication skills, and we encourage our little ones to make (and keep) good buddies. But still, in the land of kiddie friendships, some flourish and some fail. Why is this, and should we care? Do we want our kids to be popular? Are popularity and happiness linked? It’s a nuanced topic, but here’s what science has to say.

Socially skilled, for better or worse

Of course there is no one quality that makes or breaks little-kid popularity. The Mean Girls stereotype, however, dictates that the popular kids are unkind and wield social power through insults and ridicule. Unfortunately, this is partly true — even in preschool. But one of the interesting findings from social psychology research is that while popular children can be cruel, they are also very nice and act “prosocially” (to benefit others).

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Researcher Patricia Hawley calls these popular, nice-but-not-so-nice children “bistrategic controllers.” These are kids who tend to flex control through both positive and negative routes. They are coercive and aggressive kids: they threaten, manipulate, and take from others. But they also have a lot of good qualities too: they’re highly cooperative, offering unsolicited help and having lots of positive interactions with their peers. In other words, popular kids are “in the mix” — yes, sometimes they use their social skills to intimidate, but they also know how to be nice and have genuinely good connections, too.

Why would these bi-strategic kids have so many buddies? Why wouldn’t they be rejected for their aggression? It could be that they spend enough time being charming and positive that the meanness doesn’t override this. And readers of the recent popular science book on child-rearing NurtureShock may also remember the theory that popular kids are appealing to peers for the very fact of their aggression — because they can break the rules and defy grown-ups.

Mind readers and lie detectors

What makes these popular kids so savvy? Researchers have asked this question, looking at the underlying psychology of cool kids, and found that they are exceptionally good at some sophisticated social and cognitive tasks.

Well-liked kids have a good “theory of mind” — the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and see the world from his/her perspective. A 2002 study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, for example, found that popular preschoolers were better at answering questions based on how someone else would think in a given situation (a tall order for most 3- and 4-year-olds) than their “uncool” counterparts. They were also better at detecting when a person was deliberately lying , versus when that person had made an innocent mistake. In contrast, children who were more often rejected by their peers didn’t do any better than random chance on these tests. Having a good theory of mind could be what allows these social butterflies to work the crowd so well — they have a stronger knack for understanding what makes other people tick, so they can affect their peers (for better or worse).

As kids move into middle and high school, the picture of popularity gets more complicated, as the pressure of in- and out-groups increases. Studies looking at older children have shown that kids who are viewed as more physically attractive and more aggressive are perceived to be popular. But, on a more heartening note, these qualities do not predict who is truly well-liked (versus simply being socially visible and labeled as popular). In other words, for older kids, looks and intimidation seem to work only on the surface.

Good impulse control

Yes, that particular brand of twisting, coercive aggression seems to give kids a social advantage, but being impulsively antisocial and mean does not. Remember that savvy kids use their powers to make others feel both good and bad, but either way, they can control themselves and act deliberately.

On the other hand, impulse and low emotional control doesn’t bode well for friendships, leading to less-than-popular kids. It’s hard to maintain buddies and get along in a group when you lash out unpredictably. This has a lot to do with temperament, as some kids are naturally better at impulse control, but it’s also a skill that develops over time and with practice. More specifically, studies show that impulsive kids who have a lot of social interaction have more externalizing behaviors (hitting and overt aggression) — making for more trips to the principal’s office. Impulsive kids who don’t have a lot of social interaction have more internalizing behaviors (withdrawal and sadness). One style isn’t better than the other, but there’s no doubt that impulse control helps make the school and social worlds run more smoothly.

Does popularity make for happier kids?

So, at the end of the day, does it really matter if your kid is the most popular on the playground? Of course, being well-liked and having buddies is a boon to kids. After all, humans are social creatures, and generally we’re happiest and healthiest when connected to others. But the quiet, loud, impulsive, controlled, savvy, or innocently clueless — they will all make friends in their own ways.

As a parent, I hope I can help my kids learn how to assert themselves and be bold enough to speak their minds, yet empathetic enough to see how they affect others. Not every child can, or should, be the ringleader. In the end, a massive quantity of friends isn’t what makes children happy, anyway — it’s the quality of those friendships that counts.

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