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Popularity: How to Help Preteens Redefine the Standards


Popularity is a … popular topic among preteens. But it’s time to redefine preteen popularity rules. Read on to learn how.

At a family gathering, Bev glanced out the window to watch the children 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 incident didn’t faze the girl.

Times have changed. Long ago, boyish pranks consisted of dunking a girl’s pigtails in the inkwell. Even in my day, the most daring thing a boy might do was pop a girl’s training-bra strap.

What’s wrong with today’s boys compared to 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. They push the edge of macho-maleness.
Boys will be boys. And just as true, girls will be girls. The commonality between preteen kids in every generation? They’ll do almost anything to be popular. Adler — along with her sociologist husband Peter — spent five years studying what makes fifth- and sixth-graders popular. They found the criteria differ for boys and girls.

Boys and Popularity

Speaking to 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. (Think the latest shoes and haircut.) Getting good grades, rather than boosting a boy’s popularity, may 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.