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Hung up on Rungs — Helping Children Navigate the Popularity Ladder

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Here’s the way I saw the social universe during junior high and high school:

  • Top rung: Football and basketball players; cheerleaders/pompon girls
  • 2nd rung: Other jocks; friends of jocks and cheerleaders
  • 3rd rung: Cowboys
  • 4th rung: Smart geeks
  • 5th rung: Band weenies and choir/theater people
  • 6th rung: Stoners

Really, this list overstates the importance of rungs 3-6. It felt like below the 2nd rung, we were all lumped together as varying degrees of Losers.

Me? I was a Brand Weenie and proud of it. I wore a funny hat during marching band parades and hung out with other Band Weenies. We had cleaner fun than the Popular Kids — we weren’t cool enough for alcohol and other vices. We were more likely to TP a house (the quarterback’s naturally; the closest I could get to him) than to attend a kegger.

I got through high school without making any really bad decisions, and I suppose it was said I had a pretty good head on my shoulders. So in a way, unpopularity worked for me.

But at the time, I was keenly aware of being low on the ladder. This fact was emphasized more recently at my mmmpttieth reunion, when I wished I’d had a dime for every time a former Top Runger asked me, “And which high school did YOU go to?”

YOURS, you self-centered princess / narcissistic musclehead!

But no, I’m over it now. Clearly. Thanks for asking.

I often wondered where popularity comes from. I mean, at what age do you get assigned a rung? Was it before 4th grade, when I moved into the school system? Was I assigned a lower rung because I was new? Then why were other newcomers allowed access to the upper rungs? Was it simply that I was not an athlete? That my jeans were off-brand and not Calvin Kleins? (On second thought, if you click on the link above, I bet the reasons will become apparent.)

What were the qualities that separated the Ins from the Outs? And who got to be the judge? I’d like to think it wasn’t just being, uh, easy, back in the 70s and 80s. After all, isn’t it supposed to be a recent phenomenon that kids are very, uh, body-savvy by middle school?

Now my children are beginning to steer their way through social strata. In the early elementary grades, the rungs assignments are not yet set and the kiddies are not yet cutthroat evil vicious eager social climbers, but I’m not exactly sure when the game begins. It could be very soon for my children. Surely the foundation for each of them is already being formed.

So this makes me think: how can I best help them navigate the emerging strata in their social lives? How do I teach them to balance their individuality (Tessa has a unique sense of fashion style, and Reed is one of the most enthusiastic Jedis-in-training in this galaxy) with attempts to fit in and conform? How do I keep them from being either the hurters or the hurtees?

What are your thoughts?

  • What are your position and memories of your own ladder?
  • Where does popularity come from?
  • How will you / did you help your children with these issues?


Lori Holden's book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open AdoptionLori Holden blogs from metro-Denver at Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole (written with her daughter’s birth mom), is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful gift for the adoptive families in your life.

Lori is also available to deliver her open adoption workshop to adoption agencies and support groups.

Lori Holden
Author: Lori Holden

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson May 14, 2009

    My kids are on the cusp of entering school and being thrown into this silly world. My heart aches at the thought of them being rejected in any way!

    I was fortunate–I stayed with the same group of neighborhood friends all through high school. We were an eclectic mix: I was an athlete, another was an award-winning artist, another a model and the fourth was a championship equestrian. Because we were so diverse, we kind of melded in with everyone and never really felt this popularity ladder. However, I do remember that Junior High there was always that worry/concern!

  • comment avatar Kagey May 14, 2009

    I was band-geek, choir-girl, newspaper staff, and valedictorian and I didn’t even get INVITED to my 10th reunion. There’s invisible and then there’s invisible.
    My kids are 5 and under, and I may even promote non-popularity for my kids. Avoid the vices you mention, be able to be your own person, choose friends based upon who you like, not who will enhance your status. I admit it’s tough (probably harder in jr high than anywhere), but eventually you reach a place where you will be recognized for what you excel in.

  • comment avatar Sheri May 14, 2009

    I hung out on several of the ladder rungs — played sports, was in band and got good grades. As a result, I was in several social circles.

    I recently remembered the importance of the rungs at one of my class reunions. At the reunion, there seemed to be a magnetic pull to go back to the rung from whence you came.

    There was a feeling that no matter what your life looks like now or how secure you are most of the time, once you were thrown in the room with old classmates, there were memories of “the ladder” and “the rungs.”

    One of my life coaching clients went through this recently. Check out her story on my blog:

    With my kids now in middle school, I see them on various rungs of the ladder. I wonder where they think they are in relation to others. It is an invisible but powerful system we have in our society. Great post, Lori! Thank you!


  • comment avatar Melissa May 16, 2009

    Ditto the not being invited to the 10 year reunion. I was in orchestra, so that made me even less popular than the kids in band. I also hung out with the geeks and was really shy, which was interpreted as snobbery. However, I am thankful for my unpopular status, because I was never invited to a kegger, never offered drugs or alcohol, and never pressured to have sex. Quite frankly, I hope my kids are not popular, too.

  • comment avatar Lori in Denver May 16, 2009

    Amber, Kagey, Sheri, Melissa…I enjoy hearing your stories about that time where we defined how we fit in with our peers, and your ideas on helping your kids do so as well.

    I envied the girls I met in college who either DIDn’t have a social ladder (like Amber) or who were able to occupy many rungs (like Sheri).

    But, like Kagey says, we eventually excel and get recognized for it.

    And Melissa, there is a downside to being popular and an upside to being unpopular. Here’s to the music geeks!

  • comment avatar Holly May 16, 2009

    Wow, that is a good question. I have no idea. I feel like if I keep changing his diaper before the poops get too smelly, he might stay off of dork status, but I guess they are out of diapers by then anyway, huh? I think it’s all about teaching them to love who they are and not change just to fit into some mold. I think when I went to high school, people were starting to appreciate the under-appreciated. The ‘populars’ would make friends with a dork and see how fast they could make them the most wanted guy/girl in school strictly through association and showing everyone else quirks are endearing. I was a cheerleader, hung with all the cool kids, was surprisingly liked by others and had a no drink, no smoke, study hard policy. I went to parties and drove everyone home. I would consider myself a dork for that, but no one else did. They loved it, but I think I just went to school at a very friendly time! But, what if my kids don’t go to friendly, quirk loving schools?

    Great, thanks for making me think of all the things I have to look forward to Lori! 😉

  • comment avatar JoAnn, The Casual Perfectionist May 16, 2009

    This is a great post, Lori!

    I had the fortune to grow up with the same kids. I graduated High School with kids I knew before we were all in Kindergarten. We came from a close-knit farming community.

    The different echelons were really blurred in my school. We had top athletes, but they weren’t “better” than the band people or the theatre people or the people at the top of the class academically (where I fit in). And, really, I was friends with pretty much everyone.

    I never felt “pressured” to do “bad” things. I was asked to participate in some eyebrow-raising things on occasion, but I never did. I was a really good girl in high school. I was always able to confidently refuse. I was never made to feel smaller for my choices, but I think that was because I knew who I was and where I wanted to be.

    I knew I’d always fit in with my true friends, so I never worried about it.

    I hope my daughter inherits that confidence. I hope she surrounds herself with people who bring out her best qualities.

    I hope she’s able to come up against the tough issues and walk away stronger for it. Know what I mean?

    In a way, I’m glad I was forced to make decisions for myself in high school, because it prepared me to make similar choices in college.

    Who knows what all of this will be like by the time she gets there!!