Dr. David Lose: The Problem with Popular

"Why are the popular kids usually mean?"

The question came from a friend, a parent of kids that go to school with my kids. We were at a bar mitzvah and watching the interaction of some of the kids gathered. Her daughter had just been blown off by a group of the "popular" kids and, as any parent would in her situation, she winced. Her daughter was fine, of course; kids have thicker skin than we sometimes imagine. But it still hurt, for all of us.

Why are the popular kids usually mean? It's good question. I didn't have an answer at the time, but as I've thought about it since, I've come to the conclusion it's because the very category of "popular" demands exclusion in the first place. I mean, if there aren't unpopular kids, how can there be popular ones?

The problem isn't with the kids; it's with our categories of interaction. If some kids have to be shunned so that other kids feel good about themselves, then we're all stuck. Is there a way out? The only one I know seems to be avoidance. Or as my daughter once said, "I don't want to be unpopular, but I don't really want to be popular either. Can't I just be me?" She'd seen enough of the in/out distinctions and wanted nothing to do with them. So kids like her lay a little lower, trying to avoid the cliques on either end of the spectrum, being generally nice to the kids around them, and hoping not to get pulled in either direction. It's a balancing act that is far from easy.

But what if the only option weren't avoidance? What if we talked with our kids about another way altogether? That is, what if we talked with our kids about doing away with the categories of popular and unpopular by actively seeking out different friends and mixing socially with a variety of kids. Utopian? Maybe. Difficult? Definitely. But don't you think there might be some value to sitting down and talking with our kids about their experiences of the social scene at school? I think they might actually value a chance to share their feelings about the social distinctions that they begin to experience in late elementary and early middle school and reach a fevered pitch in high school and college. Building on that, might we even talk with other parents - the ones we know best, at first, but eventually others, too? Might we engage our school teachers and administrators, youth group leaders and pastors, in a conversation about how to overcome the popularity problem?

Look, I know this is risky. Some parents have staked their lives on the code of popularity and can't imagine anything better than schooling their children in the rules of inclusion and exclusion in the hope that they will be "successful." But there are others - and I suspect their numbers are larger than we might think - who might be ready for a conversation about overcoming all that for the sake of our children and, truth be told, ourselves. Because at the bottom of the popularity problem is our own human insecurity, and the pecking orders we establish might lend some order that insecurity but they do not banish it. The only thing that banishes insecurity is acceptance, the acceptance that comes from forming a genuine community.

So I'm inviting us to start this conversation and to see what resources our families, schools, and congregations can bring to the table. Maybe especially our congregations. Because, after all, across the New Testament there is one theme that remains consistent: whenever you draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," you're bound to find Jesus on the other side. I think our kids near to hear that.

Thanks for sharing your ideas.

[Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime"]