Is Being Popular At School Really That Important?

For most kids and parents the issue of popularity at school is likely to come up sooner or later. I’ve had calls from parents of very young children who are concerned that their five- or six-year-old didn’t get invited to a party.  And many older kids strive to be popular at school.  But there are positives and negatives to being popular, and popularity is subjective.  It can depend on an individual’s perception of what it means to be “well liked.”

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, a research associate in psychology at the University of Virginia, conducted a study on popularity among adolescents.  She found that a person’s perception of how they fit into the social world is just as important–if not more important–than their real-life position in the social world.  Therefore, believing you are popular can be just as effective as actually being perceived by others as being popular.  That’s good news for both parents and kids.  It provides useful information for families as they wade through the social anxieties of adolescence.

Being considered popular at school can be both a blessing and a curse.  A student who is popular on his or her own merits is generally a happy, well-adjusted individual. These students are friendly, talk to everyone, do well with academics and set a good example.  Their peers look up to them because they are admired for their positive traits.  This type of popular person respects others as well.

Other students however, may be popular due to things over which they have little control, such as physical appearance, natural athletic ability or wealth.  If one is an extremely fortunate individual, he or she may also be kind and generous.  But that is not always true.  Television dramas, sitcoms and reality shows often depict the opposite type of fortunate individual who is mean and bratty.

Of course being popular at school can also come from engaging in negative behavior.  If your child is hanging out with a destructive crowd because he or she wants to be popular, this could have a negative effect.  When kids gain popularity by compromising their values or your family’s values, that’s taking the need to be popular too far and direct intervention may be necessary on your part.

Alternatively, how can kids cope when they don’t think of themselves as popular and they are not considered popular by others?  There are other ways to achieve the same psychological benefits of being popular without being the football player or the cheerleader.  Help your child understand this and find a group, even if it’s small, in which they feel comfortable and well-liked.  This can be just as rewarding.  Kids who have trouble blending in with the mainstream can sometimes have skills that enhance their ability to make friends elsewhere such as at church or in music and art groups.  Remember, a kid’s world is very small.  They usually meet within their zip codes.  Adults on the other hand can select professions where they meet others who are like-minded, but who live outside their immediate physical environment.  If your child thinks he or she is not fitting in easily in the school setting, encourage them to meet kids outside their school environment.  If monitored properly and used appropriately, online social networks can be a good way for kids to meet other kids.

The bottom line is no matter how old you are, it feels good to be included in a group.  Social acceptance is a very primary need among adults and children.  But teach your kids that what they think, feel and believe about themselves is ultimately what will make them happy and popular.

Crossroads for Youth is southeastern Michigan’s leading expert on at-risk youth. Believing all youth are at risk, Crossroads for Youth strengthens families and youth with skills and tools so they become valued contributors in their communities.  For more information about Crossroads for Youth contact our Director of Development and Public Relations at (248) 628-2561, email us at or visit our Web site at


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