Real Mom Confessions- I'm Afraid That My Kid Won't Be Popular

My son is only 4 years old, but I can already see it starting. Kids at preschool forming their own little groups of friends, leaving others out, yelling "I don't want to play with you", and so on. I would never want my child to be mean to others, or make anyone else fee like they don't matter, but I'm also secretly terrified that it will happen to him.

At home we can preach inclusion and kindness all we want, but kids are going to form their own cliques regardless, and I feel like we have a small hand in where they end up. When I was in school, cliques were not just divided by different interests and activities, but also things like social status, class, belongings, who our parents were, what we looked like and what area of town we lived in. I'm not saying any of those things are valid reasons to befriend someone or not, but we all know that it happens.

I remember being in elementary school and watching an "unpopular" classmate get chased by other kids with an apple juice box. They sprayed juice in her hair as she ran away from them, and I helped her wash it out in the bathroom after. Even at that age, she had been singled out because she wore old clothes, always had dirty knotted hair, and was "poor". None of those things were her fault, but she was singled out because she was different and looked at as less than her peers. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I see several sets of parents at fault here. The parents who didn't teach their children to not be assholes, and the parents who couldn't be bothered to wash their daughter's face and brush her hair before sending her to school.

In September, 2003, on my first day of high school, I remember exactly what I wore- a pair of jeans and a hoody from Walmart. I grew up in a small town where the closest stores with brand name clothes were about an hour away, and even though my parents could afford it, they didn't know much about brand names at the time. I was also a plus size 13 year old, so I'm sure they were just happy to find something I was comfortable in. In French class, a boy sat behind me that day and put stickers in my hair and laughed at me. I also remember what I wore the first time I ever got a compliment from one of the "popular kids". I had convinced my mom to let me shop in the men's section of American Eagle so I could try to find something brand name that fit. I ended up buying a green pull over hoody, with the American Eagle logo on the front, and a pair of fake UGGs. When I wore my new outfit to school the next day, I got a few compliments, but the one from the popular girl in my science class stood out the most and made me feel confident. Every single time I wore that sweater afterwards, I felt the same confidence that I did when she complimented me, and that confidence helped me to have a good day every time I wore it.

I've talked to other parents about this before, and have gotten answers like "I don't want my child to think clothes are important", or "I don't want my kid to judge other people based on their clothes". The thing is, most of us don't WANT these things to happen, but it's going to happen whether we want it to or not. Media feeds us constant messages of what's "cool" and what isn't, and the thought of my child potentially being bullied is enough to make me want to do whatever I can to give him the best chance of that not happening.

Because of my own experience in school, I've always had it ingrained in my head that what we wear, drive, or own are things that make us likeable. While researching what makes someone popular, I came across some interesting information. As it turns out, it's not just our clothes and fancy belongings that make us popular.

I stumbled across this YouTube video of a talk by Mitch Prinstein, psychologist and author of the book, Popular. It's an extremely interesting video and I highly recommend watching it. He talks about how humans have always been a social species, and mentions how there is a part of our brain that lights up when we feel excluded. It's the same part of the brain thats activated when we feel physical pain. One of my biggest fears has always been for our son to feel excluded. I want so badly to always be able to provide him with opportunities to feel included, whether that be in sports, social situations, friendships, etc. This fear is also what has me already researching what LL Bean backpack to get him for school next year, because I already know that all the other moms are buying them for their kids (they're also just really amazing backpacks and I still have mine from 11th grade, but thats a story for another post.)

Prinstein also mentions that there are two different types of popularity- social reputation, and social preference. Social preference, or "likability" is the most important type of popularity, because it's the kind the stays with you throughout your life. When they looked at people ages 3 to adulthood, likability effected almost every aspect of their lives, from relationships, to careers, to health. Likability isn't just the clothes that we wear. It's social interactions, being kind to people, having the ability to judge certain social situations and act accordingly, making people feel included, etc. Research has showed that people who were popular by just social reputation essentially peak in high school. The people who were popular by likability turned out to be very successful in almost all aspects of their lives. Surprisingly, people who are likeable or popular by social preference, are also statistically more likely to live longer than people who are "unpopular".

So, should we want our children to be popular? The research shows that likability will stay with them their entire lives. The confidence they get from being liked, and the experiences they take with them from multiple social situations throughout life are invaluable. When they conducted an experiment with a group of 3 year olds, they found out who was most popular in the preschool class by doing a class poll. When they switched the classes around and mixed the kids up, the same kids who were popular in the first experiment were also the most popular in the second. Their popularity carried with them throughout different groups of peers, and will most likely carry with them throughout their lives. Why did their friends find them so likeable? The likeable kids were the ones who listened, made their peers feel included, weren't aggressive, were good at waiting their turn, were able to identify what the social norms were, and were able to enter and change the group from within.

Prinstein also mentions that popularity is usually passed to our future generations. It's literally in our DNA, and you're going to have to watch his video to get more information about the DNA stuff, because it's way too much to type out here.

My fear of my child not being well liked, and my research that followed has lead me to this conclusion. We need balance. A child with nice clothes might be socially popular for a little while, but if they have a bad attitude, they won't reach likability or carry the benefits of likability throughout life. A child who is kind, but comes to school in dirty clothes with unwashed hair might be enjoyable to talk to, but probably won't reach the likability level that will positively effect their future. No matter how much money we have or don't have, we should always strive to make sure our children are clean, healthy and well taken care of. It not only effects their likability, but also their confidence and well being.

So what can we do to help our kids be likeable? We can teach them compassion, kindness, how to be a team player, how to be social. We can instill confidence in them by teaching them self love, praising them, helping them achieve their goals, and supporting any sports or activities they choose to do. We can also admit to ourselves that first impressions do make a difference, and make sure we do what we can to make sure our children are well taken care of, active and healthy.

When it comes to factors that effect likability and popularity there are also SO many things that can be out of our control, like mental health, medical conditions, financial status, etc. All we can really do is our best to make sure our children are healthy, happy and as well rounded as possible.

In conclusion, I'm just a mom with an amazing kid going into kindergarten next year who, like every parent, wants what's best for her child.

If any of you actually took the time to read this unusually long post, I would love to know your opinions! I feel like the natural response is to push back against "popularity" because it's what's inside that counts, but after watching Mitch Prinstein's video or reading his work, did any of it change your mind about popularity? Comment below!



  1. So glad you took the time to write this! Mabel is just over a year old and but I've already begun thinking about this for her. I worry enough as is about her, but I've told my husband more than once, this is the EASY stuff. We still have to handle things like the first time she comes home and tells us someone was mean to her, or the first time she is mean to someone.

    I think about my time in school and want some of the same things for her, but some different things too. I don't remember what I wore the first day of high school but I remember what I wore the first day of grade 7. It was an outfit entirely from Walmart and I loved it... until I got made fun of. And I remember my first name brand clothing item too, a pair of Tommy Hilfiger jeans from Bootlegger. It makes me sad to say it, but it definitely helped my "popularity" when I figured out what were the "right" stores to shop from.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! I was nervous to write this because I feel like it's a bit controversial, but I had to get out how I was feeling. I see posts circulating all the time telling us that we need to tell our kids that clothing and brands don't matter, and we shouldn't pass materialism down to our kids- but the sad reality is that no matter how much we teach our children that, advertisements and clothing companies will continue to tell them what's "cool" and what isn't.

      We teach kindness and inclusion all the time, but I know that I'm still going to buy the brand name clothing for him because I'm terrified that he will get made fun of if I don't.