Is It Better to Have a Cool Kid or an Unpopular One?

Ask Dr. Bronwyn

Is It Better to Have a Cool Kid or an Unpopular One?

Q: My wife is worried that our 8-year-old doesn’t ever ask for playdates. Our daughter is always happy to go on one, but she doesn’t ask for them. Part of me is secretly thrilled because some of the most successful people I’ve met in business were nerds or outcasts as kids. Am I wrong? —Lonesome Dad

Written By Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup
Photography Victoria Will

Dear Lonesome,

Since I was not a fly on the wall in the home of a certain Westchester dentist known as the “Painless Dr. Z” and his psychiatrist wife, I can’t say definitively whether their son, the future billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, was super social or not. But what I do know is that research shows that there are two types of popular: one is good and often leads to successful adult lives, while the other often results in a scenario that fans of Bruce Springsteen may recognize from his song “Glory Days.”

So, let’s talk about the two types of popularity first, and then we can cover some strategies for helping your daughter develop her social skills, so you can be certain it’s her making the choice about how social she wants to be. You may believe in the loner-turned-tech-mogul myth, but I hope you’ll agree that’s not really fair to your 8-year-old. Plus, there’s some powerful evidence for helping kids succeed socially.

The first type of popularity is based on how many people know you, how many people are influenced by you and how many people wish they could be you. This is the kind of popularity that most teens desperately care about. Even 4-year-olds can pick up on it. This is the kind of popularity that jogs everyone’s memories of the "cool kids" in middle school. The research shows, however, that this group of popular kids rarely get nominated by their peers as being well liked. To be popular doesn’t mean that people like you; it means they fear you. It also means that the futures for these popular kids aren't so pretty. This kind of popularity ultimately poses a big risk.

When research studies have followed the cool kids into adulthood, we see that teens, whose popularity was grounded in status, tend to continue acting in the same kinds of Machiavellian, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses ways as adults, remaining fixated on social standing and visibility rather than on qualities that are more likely to lead to fulfilling relationships and affiliations. They are less likely to have satisfying friendships and romantic relationships, likely to have professional and marital problems and also at a risk for problems with substance use, anxiety and depression.

If you aspire to help your child become more popular, make sure she’s clear that you mean the warm-hearted, friendly and genuinely likable kind, since research highlights that kids who are liked by their peers are likely to become adults who are too. Decades later, they tend to be happier, more successful at their jobs, fulfilled in their marriages and even healthier than their less likable peers. According to ample evidence, it seems that likable people have it made, thanks to experiencing more opportunities and receiving extra resources throughout their lives.

Although the ability to form close relationships doesn’t really get much attention, research emphasizes that it should be considered every bit as important as academic proficiency when it comes to positive future outcomes. Most people take for granted that children will make friends through trial-and-error and socially mature on their own. But the problem is that there’s a linkage between missed playdates and social invitations as a child and missed opportunities as an adult, since with few opportunities to practice social skills by middle school these excluded and ignored kids tend to be less adept at following group rules, reading social cues, negotiating conflicts and successfully interacting with others.

Just as there are two types of popular, there are two types of kids who are “rejected” by peers: the reserved and timid kids who become even more withdrawn over time and the aggressive ones who as they get older, aren’t necessarily physically aggressive, but emotionally explosive and get in trouble. These aggressive-rejected kids, as they’re known in research, are at much greater risks for emotional and professional hardships, thanks to lacking the skills needed to reel it in and not fly off the handle, which continues to perpetuate alienation into adulthood.

One would think it would be easy to escape past peer reputations and rewrite a new, more popular adult story, but the influence of peoples’ relationships growing up appear difficult to escape.

But here’s some good news for parents. It’s not that you’re going to have to figure out how to make your socially awkward child the most likable kid in school. All it takes to turn the tables on the negative alienation cycle is to help him become liked by one or two people who he considers close friends (and vice versa). A wise older parent once said to me, “All a child needs to be happy at school is one teacher who gets him and one best friend.” There’s some truth to that. That’s because when it comes to friendships, it’s quality over quantity that matters. Kids with fewer but closer friends also appear to be doing well as adults.

Just as extra support is given to children struggling academically, attention must be given to socially weak children early on, so they can practice the skills needed for making friends. Here’s how parents can strengthen their kids' social skills and change their paths from the start.

Identify their top two weaknesses and tackle them first.

For instance, some children don't pick up on social cues and need help to learn specific skills, like how to join a group. Others don't listen to their friends' ideas, keep their hands on their own bodies, know how to make small talk or understand other peoples' perspectives. By helping your child with just a few of her weakest skills — one at a time — you’ll be more likely to see positive results right away.

Help your child practice social skills every day.

Emphasize taking turns and sharing during dinnertime, and explain that friends expect the same good behavior. Make up social skill games and practice at home. Make two stuffed animals can act out social scenarios in funny ways, and use it an opportunity to prompt your child for suggestions (e.g., “What should she say?” “What should he do here?”). Role-play various social strategies and situations in which your child can practice joining a game successfully at the playground instead of just barging in, or initiating a playdate rather than waiting for someone to ask him to play, etc.

Encourage your child to practice being kind.

Help her brainstorm ways of being kind that she can try out at school. Talk about things you did that were kind each day at dinner or bedtime. Give your child positive attention for trying, even if her kind acts might miss the mark a little at first.

Teach your child to recognize social cues signaling "stop."

When it comes to reading social cues, most of us pick up on peoples’ signals telling us to cut it out, like looking the other way or making an annoyed facial expression. For socially challenged kids, those skills are not innate. So make a list of verbal and non-verbal stop signals and role-play with your child so she can practice recognizing them.

Set up play dates.

Supervised playdates at your house are a great way for your child to practice social skills while you observe from a distance. Spend some time beforehand reviewing social cues and talking about what it means to be a good host. Have her pick out a few games in advance. Remind her to notice if her friend is having a good time by paying attention to things like whether or not she’s smiling, or if, for example, she makes comments indicating boredom such as, “What else can we do?”

Hold post-play-date review sessions.

This might sound a little weird — a little corporate even — but having a quick post-mortem with your child means that you can let her take the lead during the playdate, so she can learn from natural consequences of her reactions and actions. Afterward, help her identify and resolve emotions she may have experienced during the playdate, such as being nervous, frustrated, excited, etc., and problem solve any issues or disagreements.

Teach your child the qualities to look for in a friend and how to make one.

Speak with your child about her peers, and the qualities to look for in a friend, such as having shared interests, liking similar games, toys and activities and being kind. Role-play how to join a group or game and talk to a peer that seems nice.

Enroll your child in out-of-school opportunities of interest.

There’s nothing like shared interests to inspire comradery. Help your child develop friendships outside of school, such as playing team sports, taking a specialized class like robotics, volunteering or participating in the arts.

Talk to your child’s teacher.

If you have any concerns regarding your child’s social experiences at school, set up a meeting with his teacher. Kids are absolutists, and one negative interaction with a peer could make your child describe school as “the worst place ever.” So, to be sure about what’s really going on in the classroom, consult the teacher, who can give you a better understanding of your child’s social world (or lack of) at school. Teachers can also be great at making suggestions of kindred spirits that would be positive playdates for your child.

Parent your child’s peer experiences — not your own.

Many times when a parent hears about their child’s negative experiences with a peer, her interpretation of the situation is colored by her own past experiences and viewed through an adult lens. Instead, try to see things from your child’s point of view and age. Empathize with her. Listen more than you speak. Use questions to guide and to get her thinking and motivated to come up with solutions on her own.

Teach your child to stand up for himself.

Many children need practice when it comes to feeling comfortable and confident standing up for themselves when you’re not around. Talk about ways to feel more comfortable saying difficult things to a friend. Role-play ways he can express his needs in social situations. For instance, practice responses to various affronts with phrases such as: “It’s my turn,” “I am still at this table,” or “That’s not a nice thing to say.”

Model confident behavior with other people.

Your child learns a lot from simply watching you. That means you should be friendly to strangers, offer help to others, respectfully stand up for yourself and have an easygoing manner in social situations. These all benefit your child.

Don’t label your child as shy.

Let her know instead that you are going to help her get better at feeling more comfortable in social situations through practice. Talk to her about the fact that everyone is different and that some people take longer to warm up to things than others. Remind her of times she felt nervous to join a group or activity (e.g., a birthday party), but did so on her own terms, and ended up enjoying herself.

Steer clear of controlling discipline techniques.

If your child is the kind of kid who is easy to bully as a parent (e.g., raise your voice and he does what you tell him), he’ll probably respond similarly when kids do the same. Don't reinforce this tendency. Make sure he knows that bullying is never okay and that his voice matters.

Stay connected to your child.

Prioritize your relationship with your child, and keep lines of communication open no matter what. Your child needs to not feel ashamed and be open to talking about problems with peers at school, and at the same time, benefit from a relationship with you that gives her a respite from the loneliness and alienation she may be experiencing.


Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.