Well, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Child Development, being part of the “cool” crowd in middle school might not be all it’s cracked up to be by the time those same kids hit their 20’s.
In a study conducted at the University of Virginia, researchers followed 184 children over a decade from the ages of 13 to 23 to see how the “cool” kids of middle school and high school fared as young adults. They measured “cool” by things like how many different people they “made out” with, how often they engaged in vandalism and petty theft, their partying habits on the weekend involving drugs and alcohol, and how important it was for them to hang out with the good looking crowd. Essentially, the kids who were constantly pushing the envelope and trying to look more “mature” than everybody else.
And you can probably guess the results: these kinds of “cool” kids in middle school and high school had more problems as young adults with substance abuse, the law, jobs, and relationships. Surprise! (I’ve always contended that social science research does nothing more than validate our common sense experiences.)
Joseph Allen, the professor who led the study, calls it the high school reunion effect. And we all know exactly what that means. But what does it mean for us as mothers raising the next batch of middle and high schoolers? Maybe a good start is to realize that “cool” and “popular” don’t always have to be synonymous. Let me explain.
It really depends on the subculture your kids are growing up in. Sure, there are certain schools and communities that foster the idea that “cool” is defined by being edgy and bucking authority and rules. I think all of us can look back on our teen years and remember kids who were considered “cool” for all the wrong reasons mentioned in this study. (Sadly, I know quite a few adults still stuck in this rut.) Sometimes they were the popular kids, but in certain circles, that kind of “cool” is actually considered “lame” by those who understand what cool really is: being smart, talented, funny, and kind. But it takes a strong community of parents committed to this idea to create strong, healthy kids who make positive behaviors and characteristics more popular than negative ones.
As a mother of two teens and two more on the way, I guess what I’m really trying to say is this: please don’t encourage your child to be cool and popular for popularity’s sake. You know what I’m talking about–trying to organize play dates for them when they are young to help them get in with the “right” kids, always buying them the “right” clothes, making sure they are involved in the “right” activities and clubs that foster popularity. Not only is this off putting, but if being “popular” in your community turns out to be tied to the kind of “cool” described in this study, you may regret pushing your child in that direction. (Of course, I am fully aware that these things often evolve totally on their own independent of any parental influence.)
Instead, as a community of deliberate mothers, let’s pay attention to our children’s unique personalities, strengths, and talents, and simply help them find a comfortable place in their world where they can succeed academically while enjoying healthy, fulfilling relationships. (We all know one true friend is much better than a big group of fair weather friends.) Most importantly, let’s find ways to teach them that kindness and volunteerism are much cooler than social exclusiveness and risky behaviors. Not only will this help them in the long run as they become young adults (as evidenced by this study), but it may just be the catalyst our individual communities need to change their definition of “cool”. And the more parents we can get thinking like this, the better. Wouldn’t it be great if your child learned to value education, hard work, inclusiveness, and giving? And better yet, if those behaviors made them popular?
Well, that would just be cool.
QUESTION: Is your child part of the cool and/or popular crowd? How important is it to you that your child be popular? What defines cool and popular in your community? Do you think as parents we can influence our children’s community and their definition of cool?
CHALLENGE: Think about the messages you are sending your child about what is cool, and the importance of being cool and popular. Where possible, help redefine cool in your community by creating strong, healthy kids who make positive characteristics more popular than negative ones.