- Craig Barritt / Stringer
• Dr. Mitch Prinstein studies how childhood popularity influences the way we develop as adults.
• He’s found that parents have a direct influence on their child’s popularity starting as babies.
• Some of that influence is genetic or mindless, but some can be deliberate and helpful.
No parents wants to see their child get bullied, or on the opposite end, be the bully. What they may not realize, however, is that even if they aren’t trying to, they are influencing their kid’s popularity.
And it’s not a meaningless adolescent phase. Our popularity and the way we perceive it is critical to our personal and professional development, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Dr. Mitch Prinstein.
Prinstein is a clinical child psychologist and one of the foremost researchers into the psychology of popularity. We spoke with Prinstein earlier this year, read his book “Popular,” and took his Coursera class adapted from the one he teaches at UNC.
First off, Prinstein distinguishes between two types of popularity: social reputation (status) and social preference (likability). The former is more noticeable (who’s “cool” and who isn’t), but the latter (who can develop meaningful relationships) is significantly more valuable as a child matures into an adult.
Here’s how parents influence their child’s popularity, and what that yields.
• Their own experience with popularity dictates what they teach their children about social interactions. Studies have found that mothers who remember their childhoods marked by happiness tend to have popular children, those who remember their childhoods marked by hostility tend to have unpopular children, and those who remember their childhoods marked by loneliness or anxiety tend to be of average popularity or higher. The reason is that the first and last groups both care about their children’s social interactions and intervene when necessary, while those who grew up with hostility don’t value their children’s relationships as much.
• They pass on their genetics. As unfortunate as it may be, naturally attractive and physically fit kids fare better in school than those who aren’t – and it starts at a very young age, indicating that at least some aspect of those biases are hardwired into the brain, with social cues filling in the rest. Parents’ genetics may also determine “our general comfort level when we interact with others,” known as “behavioral inhibition,” and children who naturally feel more comfortable in social situations tend to become more popular.
• Their level of aggression is often mimicked, and aggressive children are usually the least liked. Parents who have a tendency to bring aggression into even minor interactions normalize that trait for their kids. Aggressive children and adolescents can use that trait to rise in status, but are almost guaranteed to be among the least likable in their school. And those that are both aggressive and low in status are in the lowest social strata in schools and tend to fare the worst in adulthood.
• The security of their bond with their young children influences how kids become self-sufficient. Parent-child attachments are either secure or insecure. Infants or toddlers with insecure attachments either are uncomfortable with or apathetic about their parents, or they are so closely linked that even the shortest separation causes them to start sobbing; those in secure attachments are close to their parents but feel comfortable on their own, as well. As these young children mature, the patterns that started as babies persist, and those who are less comfortable with independence tend to be less popular.
• Parents unconsciously teach their children how to regulate emotions. Popular kids are more in control of their emotions than their less popular peers, and they learn emotional regulation at an early age. Parents who play with their young children have an opportunity to teach their kids about dealing with winning and losing, and how to calm down from a state of excitement. Similarly, when young children get hurt while playing, they look to their parents for cues on how to react – if a parent responds with coddling or frantic anxiety to a small scrape after a fall, the child will likely start excessively sobbing, but parents that help their child while remaining calm demonstrate to their children how to behave in a difficult situation.
• Parents’ level of involvement in their kid’s social lives can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on their kid’s age. Overprotective “helicopter parents,” as they’re known colloquially, can hurt their child’s popularity if they do something like try to influence who their teenager hangs out with and closely monitors them, but that doesn’t mean all intervention is negative. Intervention or coaching is beneficial when it helps a child, or even teenager, foster healthy social relationships, without becoming overly involved.
It should also be noted that the factors that influence our popularity don’t disappear in new contexts, and so that’s why research has found that when a bullied child is moved to a new school, they often end up with a new set of bullies, if no other changes are made.
“But I think that moving to a new context and paying attention to the behaviors that make somebody popular or unpopular, that can be worthwhile,” Prinstein told us. “We’re not doomed.”
In his book, Prinstein said that the best parents can do for their children is teach them the difference between status and likability, and explained why prioritizing likability can allow them to be happier and more resilient as children and as adults.
Prinstein said that with his own young children, “I’m doing my best to make sure that, at the very least, they understand that it’s fine to be popular, as long as it’s the type of popularity that will make them happy.”