What Makes Kids Popular

What makes kids pop­u­lar and do you have “cool kids?”  There is some inter­est­ing sci­ence behind what makes a kid popular.


It starts so early. On the yard at my son’s preschool dur­ing pick­ups and drop-offs, I already see cliques, social dom­i­nance, rejec­tion, and pop­u­lar­ity. One 4-year-old is clearly ring-leading a group of fel­low class­mates over a water table: shout­ing orders, mak­ing up the rules, and cri­tiquing everyone’s play­time. Another appears aim­less and slightly dis­con­nected as he pushes a shop­ping cart up and down the pavement.

It’s nat­ural to want our chil­dren to be liked, to have friends, and to feel com­fort­able in a group. As par­ents we orga­nize play dates, we teach shar­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, and we encour­age our lit­tle ones to make (and keep) good bud­dies. But still, in the land of kid­die friend­ships, some flour­ish and some fail. Why is this, and should we care? Do we want our kids to be pop­u­lar? Are pop­u­lar­ity and hap­pi­ness linked? It’s a nuanced topic, but here’s what sci­ence has to say.

Socially skilled, for bet­ter or worse

Of course there is no one qual­ity that makes or breaks little-kid pop­u­lar­ity. The Mean Girls stereo­type, how­ever, dic­tates that the pop­u­lar kids are unkind and wield social power through insults and ridicule. Unfor­tu­nately, this is partly true — even in preschool. But one of the inter­est­ing find­ings from social psy­chol­ogy research is that while pop­u­lar chil­dren can be cruel, they are also very nice and act “proso­cially” (to ben­e­fit others).

Researcher Patri­cia Haw­ley calls these pop­u­lar, nice-but-not-so-nice chil­dren “bis­trate­gic con­trollers.” These are kids who tend to flex con­trol through both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive routes. They are coer­cive and aggres­sive kids: they threaten, manip­u­late, and take from oth­ers. But they also have a lot of good qual­i­ties too: they’re highly coop­er­a­tive, offer­ing unso­licited help and hav­ing lots of pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions with their peers. In other words, pop­u­lar kids are “in the mix” — yes, some­times they use their social skills to intim­i­date, but they also know how to be nice and have gen­uinely good con­nec­tions, too.

Why would these bi-strategic kids have so many bud­dies? Why wouldn’t they be rejected for their aggres­sion? It could be that they spend enough time being charm­ing and pos­i­tive that the mean­ness doesn’t over­ride this. And read­ers of the recent pop­u­lar sci­ence book on child-rearing Nur­tureShock may also remem­ber the the­ory that pop­u­lar kids are appeal­ing to peers for the very fact of their aggres­sion — because they can break the rules and defy grown-ups.

Mind read­ers and lie detectors

What makes these pop­u­lar kids so savvy? Researchers have asked this ques­tion, look­ing at the under­ly­ing psy­chol­ogy of cool kids, and found that they are excep­tion­ally good at some sophis­ti­cated social and cog­ni­tive tasks.

Well-liked kids have a good “the­ory of mind” — the abil­ity to put one­self in another’s shoes and see the world from his/her per­spec­tive. A 2002 study in the British Jour­nal of Devel­op­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy, for exam­ple, found that pop­u­lar preschool­ers were bet­ter at answer­ing ques­tions based on how some­one else would think in a given sit­u­a­tion (a tall order for most 3– and 4-year-olds) than their “uncool” coun­ter­parts. They were also bet­ter at detect­ing when a per­son was delib­er­ately lying , ver­sus when that per­son had made an inno­cent mis­take. In con­trast, chil­dren who were more often rejected by their peers didn’t do any bet­ter than ran­dom chance on these tests. Hav­ing a good the­ory of mind could be what allows these social but­ter­flies to work the crowd so well — they have a stronger knack for under­stand­ing what makes other peo­ple tick, so they can affect their peers (for bet­ter or worse).

As kids move into mid­dle and high school, the pic­ture of pop­u­lar­ity gets more com­pli­cated, as the pres­sure of in– and out-groups increases. Stud­ies look­ing at older chil­dren have shown that kids who are viewed as more phys­i­cally attrac­tive and more aggres­sive are per­ceived to be pop­u­lar. But, on a more heart­en­ing note, these qual­i­ties do not pre­dict who is truly well-liked (ver­sus sim­ply being socially vis­i­ble and labeled as pop­u­lar). In other words, for older kids, looks and intim­i­da­tion seem to work only on the surface.

Good impulse control

Yes, that par­tic­u­lar brand of twist­ing, coer­cive aggres­sion seems to give kids a social advan­tage, but being impul­sively anti­so­cial and mean does not. Remem­ber that savvy kids use their pow­ers to make oth­ers feel both good and bad, but either way, they can con­trol them­selves and act deliberately.

On the other hand, impulse and low emo­tional con­trol doesn’t bode well for friend­ships, lead­ing to less-than-popular kids. It’s hard to main­tain bud­dies and get along in a group when you lash out unpre­dictably. This has a lot to do with tem­pera­ment, as some kids are nat­u­rally bet­ter at impulse con­trol, but it’s also a skill that devel­ops over time and with prac­tice. More specif­i­cally, stud­ies show that impul­sive kids who have a lot of social inter­ac­tion have more exter­nal­iz­ing behav­iors (hit­ting and overt aggres­sion) — mak­ing for more trips to the principal’s office. Impul­sive kids who don’t have a lot of social inter­ac­tion have more inter­nal­iz­ing behav­iors (with­drawal and sad­ness). One style isn’t bet­ter than the other, but there’s no doubt that impulse con­trol helps make the school and social worlds run more smoothly.

Does pop­u­lar­ity make for hap­pier kids?

So, at the end of the day, does it really mat­ter if your kid is the most pop­u­lar on the play­ground? Of course, being well-liked and hav­ing bud­dies is a boon to kids. After all, humans are social crea­tures, and gen­er­ally we’re hap­pi­est and health­i­est when con­nected to oth­ers. But the quiet, loud, impul­sive, con­trolled, savvy, or inno­cently clue­less — they will all make friends in their own ways.

As a par­ent, I hope I can help my kids learn how to assert them­selves and be bold enough to speak their minds, yet empa­thetic enough to see how they affect oth­ers. Not every child can, or should, be the ring­leader. In the end, a mas­sive quan­tity of friends isn’t what makes chil­dren happy, any­way — it’s the qual­ity of those friend­ships that counts.


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