While a lot has been written on how popularity and the quest for peer recognition affects adolescents and school-age children, sometimes, it is the parents who are focusing on whether or not a child is considered popular. Some parents may be trying to re-live their own youth through their children, or may be hoping their own child will NOT have the same experiences if mom or dad felt unliked or unpopular. Where can parents draw the line? Where does a healthy interest in helping our child develop socially stop and obsession and pressure begin?
It is perfectly normal for parents to want their children to be liked socially, have friends, and be invited to parties, join teams, and other social outings. Where things can get problematic is when parents and children have different temperaments or when a parent’s interest becomes added pressure and stress for the child. If a parent is a “social butterfly” and places a lot of importance on social interactions has a child who is introverted, shy, or prefers one-on-one social situations – things can get difficult. Additionally, if a child is struggling socially and feels how important popularity is to a parent – he or she can end up in a spiral of negative self concept and feel unliked both at school and at home.
Pressure doesn’t just come from parents – some schools, neighborhoods and communities just seem to be far more competitive and socially-focused than others. While some children thrive in such situations, others feel like misfits and have a much harder time fitting in and learning how to maneuver the social scene.
The first step is for parents to try to decipher what exactly is going on – who’s issues are at play and what kind of interactions are taking place. This can be incredibly difficult. A parent may feel very strongly that “popular” kids are more successful, get all the breaks, etc. and this may be a core value. If parents are able to acknowledge and “own” this belief system – it is a good first step in trying to get a handle on whether or not things are getting out of hand.
Talk with other adults in your child’s life to find out if they perceive a problem. You may find that your child is doing “just fine” at school or day care and that the teacher sees him playing and interacting with friends without concern. My own now teenage-son never brings friends home or talks on the phone, but he is quite active socially at school. I used to be worried that he was eating lunch alone and sitting in corners, but the teachers’ illuminated me that this was definitely not the case. His social needs are very specific and he doesn’t need or crave the social activity that I would consider “normal.” But, his life is comfortable and normal for him. It took some real soul-searching on my part to separate my belief system from what was best and right for him.
Encouraging our children to grow and develop socially – try new things, meet new people, take risks, etc. while being sensitive not to push or pressure can be incredibly tough. Try to take cues from your child and positively reinforce the effort (instead of putting focus on the outcome). Teaching our children to be socially responsible, generous and caring people is more important than encouraging them to be popular at all costs.