Unpopular... in elementary school?

"Unpopular" wasn't a word I expected to hear, so young, and from my own son. I felt less equipped to handle the struggle over popularity than any parental challenge so far.

By Mary Pols

The first time I heard the Deplorable Word, it was late fall in New England and we were driving away from my son’s gorgeous new school, which welcomed its first classes of second through fifth grade students just two months earlier. It’s big (680 students) but sunny and bright, and the playground has every kind of seesaw and geegaw. He’d started second grade the month before.

“I’m not popular,” my son said from the backseat. “I want to be popular.” Then he began to cry.

I spun around to look at him. Blonde and blue-eyed, he is cute in a way I never was. His physical coordination astounds me; at 18 months he could throw a ball farther and faster than I ever could. A football leaves his hands in a perfect spiral, a skill he seems to have conjured out of nowhere. He is also funny, seriously funny. From my perspective, he has everything going for him. As I reached back to pat his knee and look at him with concern, the puppy sitting next to him looked from one of us to the other with equal concern and befuddlement (OK, he always looks that way). My kid even had the most adorable canine best friend in a 60-mile radius. How could he be unpopular?

Furthermore, why was a boy worrying about being popular? Maybe that's my sexism talking, but that was my deal — and not until junior high. As I made dinner that night, breaded chicken breasts with lemon, broccoli, and rice — comfort food for my sad boy — I was heartsick. I felt less equipped to handle the issue of popularity than any parental challenge so far, including raising him mostly on my own.

A pain that's too familiar

I knew this pain. It was, in some sense, the first true pain of life. My strongest memory from junior high was standing in the cafeteria, lunch tray in my hands, wondering why the girls I’d sat with before were flatly denying me a place at the table. I can still see their faces, the carefully flipped out “wings” on their perfect hair, their white and red cheerleading sweaters.

After seventh grade, it took me years to figure out how friendship worked, what was safe, what was good, what to wish for from a peer. That was the instant the word “popular” became the Deplorable Word. Back then I practically had C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia memorized, and in The Magician’s Nephew, the “Deplorable Word” was the curse that could bring down a world if spoken. No parent can save a child from the Deplorable Word, but how could I help? I knew I had to — I might have been clueless about popularity in elementary school, but now cluelessness was no longer an option. Like most parents, I was nursing some paranoia about the possibility that my child was being bullied. You can’t live in a world where every few days, it seems, there's another article in the papers about a child committing suicide after being bullied, and not be paranoid.

Getting to the heart of the matter

I am a journalist by trade, so I did what comes naturally: I reported the situation. I interviewed school officials and experts in an effort to figure out whether this early onset exposure to the Deplorable Word was a problem particular to the school itself, his classroom, or something bigger, something cultural I’ve been blissfully unaware of until now. Of course, I knew popularity was, is, and always will be a problem for school-age children. But I’d deluded myself on two levels. First, I had this notion that my child was perfect in all the superficial ways that led to popularity, so he’d get a pass. And if he didn’t, I assumed I had a good five years to plan my strategy for coping with it when he hit middle school.

My big fear was, of course, that this was something peculiar to my kid. In which case, obviously, I would have to blame myself. I’m a single mother, so when my kid has problems, in the dark corners of my mind, there is some troll — who looks like Dick Cheney — saying well what did you expect? Hitting in preschool? Probably because Daddy is a visitor in his life, rather than a resident. Unpopular in second grade? Maybe it’s because he feels like an “other” all the time in our cute little town of seemingly happily married parents. I get that; I do, too. It was one of things I wondered about every time I’d hear about another boy’s birthday party my son wasn’t invited to — is it because of me? Paranoid? Maybe, but when I was growing up in this same town, my parents discouraged me from friendships with the children of divorce.

The next week, after the backseat confession, I met with my son’s teacher, a woman in her early 50s, warm, kind, and definitely a nurturing type. “He cries a lot,” she explained. “Every day in fact.” My heart sank. Which came first: the crying or the unpopularity? I know nobody likes a crybaby (not even, sometimes, his or her mother). When I probed my son more to find out who he sat with at lunch and who he played with at recess, I learned that the two boys he liked best at the beginning of school weren’t interested in having him in their group anymore. He felt friendless. He felt confused. He felt like I did, holding that cafeteria tray in his hands. And because he was 7, of course he cried.

Strategies of the popularity game

This kind of exclusionary behavior is a common strategy in the popularity game, according to Jennifer Watling Neal, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University who specializes in peer relation research. The kids who are a little more socially savvy tend to “rotate their social behaviors,” she explained. “Sometimes they might be nice to kids… or not. That allows them to cultivate and maintain their social standing because being exclusive with your friends creates an aura of popularity.”

She also dispelled the notion that caring about popularity is a girl thing. Even if the issues that prompt popularity tend to be different (say, athleticism for boys, attractiveness for girls), boys struggle with this issue in equal measure.

I was startled by popularity being an issue in second grade, but the experts weren’t. Neal told me that, while early research on this issue tends to focus on older kids and therefore creates the impression that popularity doesn’t “matter” until middle school, it’s always been an issue at younger ages, too. Her own research finds that children as young as second grade demonstrate an acute awareness of who is popular — and who is not — in their classrooms. And without the ability to empathize that comes with age and experience, cruelty can follow.

“They step on each other’s shoulders to get ahead, and that is human nature,” child psychologist Karin Mosk told me. “We’ve all read Lord of the Flies.”

Avoiding the "Cheese Touch"

Crying in front of his peers, Mosk pointed out, was likely to snowball into more incidents of weeping. “Likely somebody with some sort of power in the classroom pointed it out and made it a thing,” she said. Once it was a thing, “that probably triggered his fears more and more,” which led to more tears. And more ostracizing. As she explained it, one of the “gifts” a popular child has is the ability to control a crowd. It’s also not surprising that no one sprang to his defense. “They would be scared to death that they are going to be targeted next,” Mosk said. “They are not going to befriend the kid who is picked on because they don’t want to catch that.” That being the Cheese Touch, as fans of the Diary of the Wimpy Kid series might call it.

When one’s child suffers from the Cheese Touch, all the experts agree on the importance of staying in close touch with the school’s guidance counselor. Though the words “guidance counselor” conjured up images of either a Mr. Rosso (the ineffectual hippie from Freaks and Geeks) or an uptight goodie two shoes like Emma Pillsbury from Glee, what I got — joys of being back in my hometown — was a woman whose parents were friends with my parents, whose family name has been bouncing around in my head practically as long as my own. She was sympathetic about the daily weep fest but agreed it had to stop before it made things even worse. We set up a plan for him to ask to go see her whenever he was upset. It would get him out of the classroom atmosphere and as she put it, “give him a chance to breathe.”

Teachers to the rescue

Her perspective was powerful. With a school this large and only halfway through the first semester, she didn’t know all the individual players but she’d been exposed to the scope of social issues. My son’s fears about popularity, she assured me, were far from unusual.

“Typically there’s a division that happens around fourth grade,” she said. “Kids move away from the friendships they’ve had — the ones that were likely fostered by their parents or the proximity of the neighborhood. They start making new friends, ones they’ve chosen for themselves. That leaves old friends behind. There can be a lot of hurt feelings at this stage.”

But for us it happened earlier. Up until recently our town had three K-5 elementary schools, each in a different neighborhood. No one met up at one big school until sixth grade. With the advent of this new second through fifth grade school, kids were mingling — or not mingling, as the case may be — at a much younger age, triggering social turmoil earlier. “When kids go through that kind of a transition when their school is restructured,” Neal explained. “The jockeying for social positions typically occurs.”

Mosk, who works with young children and adolescents, stressed the importance of a sense of community in countering such power struggles. Team building exercises and group activities like school picnics can all help; if you feel a sense of cohesion and warmth, you’re less likely to pick on your peers because they’re part of your team. (By year two of the new school, there was a community garden, an ice cream social to kick off the year, and everything seemed to be running more smoothly.)

Neal told me new research indicates great teachers have tremendous power to influence the classroom atmosphere. So I was relieved when my son’s teacher promised to pair him with boys she thought he might be compatible with for group activities, in hopes of fostering a few strong friendships. Her strategy matched the conclusions of a 2003 University of Maine study of popularity struggles of children in grades 3 through 6: “Intervention efforts might be better directed at developing and improving dyadic friendships than enhancing children’s overall peer acceptance.” In other words, don’t try to tackle the big picture. Instead, take baby steps by helping kids make one friend at a time.

The "friend" vs. friend mistake

But what about the parent’s role? What should I say to my son?

“The thing you don’t do is say, ‘You’re so great, you have so much to offer! Be a friend!’” Mosk told me. “What you do say is, 'I know this kid who had the exact same thing happen to him, but now he looks back at it and he sees it as a hard time but he’s gotten through it.' You let them know they aren’t alone in the world.”

Kids struggling with popularity tend to make a couple of classic missteps, Mosk said. They might befriend the really tough, aggressive kids and end up taking abuse as a result — physical and otherwise. Perceiving these kids as their new “friends,” they are reluctant to tell on them and end up in a new kind of bind. Or they try to win over the popular kids by being the class clown, which often leads to trouble with the teacher.

“Tell them, ‘Put your energy toward the people that are nice to you 100 percent of the time,’” Mosk recommended. “’And don’t put energy into the ones that are confusing because they are nice to you only sometimes.’”

Concrete info really helps

I was initially reluctant to go the typical mom route of talking to other parents, because I didn’t want to make him the object of parental pity. But one day, while hanging out at the skating rink waiting for early morning hockey practice to end, I got talking with a mom I trust. Her boy had been weeping about popularity, too, she told me. Really? I said. Are you serious? This kid seemed golden to me, bursting with confidence. “Oh yeah,” she said. “Constantly.”

Another mom told me her 8-year-old son — a quiet kid but also a star athlete — had a falling out with one of his former best friends and was crushed by it. He’d been crying, too. I felt like I just found out that Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum were having a tough time making friends.

Without naming names, I talked to my son casually about what I’d learned. These were kids he knew. Even if he didn’t know exactly which of his peers I was referring to, now he knew they were worried about being popular, too. I made it clear that these were kids no one would suspect were having problems. He paid attention this time; this was concrete information and he seemed to be absorbing it carefully. (Unlike when I shared research on popularity that shows that the “popular” kids are not typically the ones that kids actually like; he told me I was crazy.)

As the year went on, I continued exchanging emails with my son’s teacher. Our plan seemed to be working; when he started to feel upset, he headed for the guidance counselor’s office. As months passed, the tears ceased. I’m not sure whether it was because he didn’t want to miss out on what was happening in class or whether he was feeling better. But I was grateful to learn he’d bonded with a new boy who shared his love of math and his competitive nature.

This journey, this struggle with popularity, isn't over. It won’t be truly over until he, too, is grown and gone from our house. It will resurface periodically, I’m sure, but at least I learned how to guide him through it. By the time the winter snows finally melted, my boy sat in the back of the car chattering a mile a minute about the football game he and some of the other “guys” started at recess. Listening, I was very still in the front seat, the way you are still when you’re trying to identify that bird singing in a tree nearby. And gloriously, the song my guy was singing was one of happiness.

Mary Pols is a movie critic for Time and writes for Marie Claire UK, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR Books, Parents, and other publications. She lives in Maine with her son, who is 9. She was awarded a Knight Fellowship in 2005 and is the author of the memoir Accidentally on Purpose, published by Ecco in 2008.