Editorial: The price of middle school popularity
One of the most difficult jobs a parent has is striking a balance between allowing kids to be kids and making sure they are prepared for each stage of adolescence. The challenge is made even greater when the child craves the approval and admiration of peers.
As a study released this month in the journal Child Development makes clear, the popularity issue is something every parent needs to address.
Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the study, tracked 184 young people from age 13 to 23 to explore the long-term effects of what he calls pseudomature behavior. Specifically, Allen wanted to know whether popularity-seeking behavior among seventh- and eighth-graders – such as mild delinquency, intense romantic relationships, choosing friends based on attractiveness and hanging out with an older crowd – stunted or accelerated social development.
What the study found was that “early adolescent pseudomature behavior predicted long-term difficulties in close relationships, as well as significant problems with alcohol and substance use, and elevated levels of criminal behavior.”
Allen also found that the behavior that makes a student popular in middle school is unlikely to make him or her popular in high school and early adulthood. This change in stature requires the teenager to adopt more extreme behavior to impress peers, who by that time in their own development are less likely to find such actions attractive.
Another critical problem caused by aggressively seeking popularity in early adolescence is the way it affects the overall maturation process.
“Pseudomature behaviors replace efforts to develop positive social skills and meaningful friendships and thus leave teens less developmentally mature and socially competent over time,” Allen wrote.
Unfortunately, the study doesn’t provide advice on how parents can help their children understand that the quest for popularity won’t lead to happiness and fulfillment. The study’s findings should, on the other hand, make the parents of popular or precocious middle schoolers ask themselves how their children gained and maintain such status, and whether they may pay a price farther down the road.
The main thing everybody should take away from Allen’s investigation is timeless: The only lasting form of popularity is based on confidence, benevolence and individuality. Those are the qualities people yearn for in themselves and are attracted to in others. For parents, the goal isn’t to convince their child that popularity isn’t important but to make them believe it with all their heart – because their future well-being may depend on it.