A group of middle schoolers shared their grievances with me about the “popular kids” in their school. From what I could make out, these “popular kids” would not have made the cut for Webster’s definition of popular:
Pop-u-lar: Commonly liked or approved
“Who decides who is popular?” I asked.
Their wheels were turning. “I don’t know,” one girl responded. “Everyone just does whatever they say.” “They decide,” another girl added.
I probed a bit more. “So, let’s say you’re wearing something you like and one of these ‘popular kids’ makes fun of it. What do you do?”
The group shot me a “well, obviously” look that middle schoolers are so good at, and then, almost in unison, they said, “You wear something different next time.”
I was given a quick refresher course in popularity. Some popular kids act nice, and some popular kids act mean. The nice popular kids mind their own business, while the popular kids who act mean run the business. What they say goes. They set the fashion trends and decide who is on which team, who sits with who at lunch, who gets talked to, who gets invited to parties. . . . They decide, well, everything. As the group contemplated power and popularity, the looks on their faces spoke loud and clear to me. I knew exactly what they were thinking. I had thought it myself when I was their age: Must be nice to be popular.
Now my wheels were turning. What was needed was a fundamental shift in thinking. Instead of must be nice to be popular, how could we get kids thinking: must be NICE in order to BE popular.
I invited the kids to consider things from the perspective of the “popular kids” who act mean: Someone wears shoes that I think aren’t cool and I tell her so. That someone never wears those shoes again. What I say goes. That new girl at school thinks she can sit at the popular table at lunch. I give her dirty looks and she goes to another table. People listen when I say something. That boy is always reading books. I call him names and he stops reading. I control others.
To sum up? Everyone does what I say. Everyone looks up to me. I am powerful. I am . . . POPULAR!
But wait. Did Webster’s definition of popularity mention anything about being mean and powerful? I didn’t think so. So what exactly is going on here, anyway?
Authors Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee, researchers at the University of California, Davis, have some of the answers. Their research was published in the American Sociological Review and was the result of a 4.5-year study of students from 19 middle and high schools in North Carolina. According to Faris, “For the vast majority of adolescents, increases in status are, over time, accompanied by increases in aggression toward their peers.” The more popular students became, the more likely they were to engage in mean behavior. The good news is that two thirds of the kids in Faris and Felmlee’s study did not engage in bullying behavior. I suspected that the kids I was speaking with fell into that two-thirds statistic. These are the kids who have the power to make a difference and put a stop to mean behavior. These are the kids who have the power to put the mean kind of popular out of business.
Stop-u-lar: Commonly helpful or kind. Stopping mean behavior whenever you see it. Showing approval for kindness rather than mean behavior. Not laughing along at something that isn’t nice. Refusing to stand by and give tacit approval for mean behavior. Choosing your own style even if someone else thinks it isn’t cool. Supporting others in their efforts to be themselves. Not giving power to those who act mean by referring to them as popular.
In honor of No Name-Calling Week, I pose a question: What makes you stopular?
Erin Frankel has an M.A. in English education and is passionate about teaching and writing. She taught ESL in Alabama before moving to Madrid, Spain, with her husband and three daughters. Erin knows firsthand what it feels like to be bullied, and she hopes her stories will help bring smiles back to children who have been involved in bullying.
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