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Kids' Popularity Rules

Christine Yount Jones

At a recent family gathering, Bev glanced out the front window to where the children were playing. What she saw shocked her. An 11-year-old boy ran up to an 11-year-old developing girl, grabbed her crotch and ran away. Bev was even more horrified when she realized the girl wasn't fazed by the incident.

Times have changed.

Long ago, boyish pranks consisted of dunking a girl's pigtails in the inkwell. Even in my day, the most risque thing a boy might do to a girl was pop her training bra strap.

What's wrong with today's boys compared to the boys of yesteryear?

According to sociology professor Patricia Adler, nothing. That is, although the boy's act was unacceptable, it's exactly what any popularity-seeking boy would do in any age -- push the edge of macho-maleness.

Boys will be boys. And just as true, girls will be girls. The commonality between preteen children in every generation is that they'll do almost anything to be popular.

Adler-along with her sociologist husband Peter-has spent the last five years studying what makes fifth- and sixth-graders popular. They found the criteria differ for boys and girls.

BOYS AND POPULARITY

In an interview with Summit Magazine, Adler says, "For boys, athletic prowess-the ability to play sports-is the number one factor. Then comes a sort of macho-maleness-being tough, defying authority, a little mouthing off."

Today's social mores have redefined what's macho for young boys. As sexual images in the media bombard boys, macho-maleness has become much more sexual-thus the incident Bev viewed.

Popular boys are required to be tough. "Girls' roles have changed more than boys'," says Adler. "They have androgenized themselves more than boys. They can call boys on the telephone and play sports but boys can't do anything slightly feminine or they are severely stigmatized."

To be popular, it also helps if a boy has "cool" things, such as Rollerblades, Nike Air Jordan hightops and the latest haircut. Doing well in school and getting good grades, rather than boosting a boy's popularity, may actually have a negative effect.

GIRLS AND POPULARITY

"For girls, appearance is number one," says Adler. If a girl is pretty by society's standards and gets attention from boys, she has a better chance of being popular.

The second most important popularity factor for girls' is socioeconomic status. In the popularity polls, other kids look for

*the kind and size of house a girl lives in,
*where she goes on vacations,
*what her parents do for a living,
*expensive extracurricular activities,
*trendy clothes and
*certain "toys," such as a telephone in her bedroom.

Parenting styles can affect a girl's popularity, too. Permissive parents boost a girl's popularity. Why? Because it's "cool" to be able to do things such as have parties with no adult supervision.

Doing well in school doesn't seem to hurt or help a girl's popularity.

WHAT TO DO

You can cope with your fifth- and sixth-graders' popularity games.

*Redefine what's popular. Help your kids desire to be popular with God. Discuss Bible stories with fifth-and sixth-graders that reveal God's view of what's popular, such as the stories of David, Zacchaeus, Ruth, Daniel or Noah. Read Isaiah 53 and discuss how Jesus wasn't beautiful or popular, but he's the most important person in history. Reinforce positive, biblical qualities by affirming children when they exhibit those qualities.

*Establish guidelines. For boys seeking to be macho, communicate what is and isn't acceptable in your group. Emphasize the rule of Christlike respect for one another. For girls, encourage them to look beyond material things to see the lasting treasures of the heart.

*Be patient. The "worldliness" of kids' popularity games can drive you crazy-if you let it. But it's only a phase. Adler says, "Popularity does become less important to children. As children mature they have fewer numbers of friends but deeper relationships. But [the desire to be popular] never fades altogether."


Christine Yount Jones is executive editor of CHILDREN'S MINISTRY Magazine.

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