Jason Anders on Parenting the Cool Kids


Have you ever had this conversation with your kids?

You:  I don’t ever want to see you doing this again! This stuff is bad for you!  It will negatively impact huge chunks of your life, and then it will probably kill you!    

Your kid: But everybody is doing it.  If they’re not, they want to be.  You’re overreacting.  You just don’t understand.  It’s how to be cool.

You:  I know it’s cool, and I don’t care.  You’ll just have to be uncool.  It’s not worth it and it’s my job to protect you.  I don’t care about cool!

No, I’m not talking about smoking.  Childhood smoking doesn’t really happen that much anymore (see Figure 1).  I’m talking about football.  That unavoidable, daily barrage of tiny little head injuries that accumulate and never heal.  It’s not just the big concussions.  It’s the small sub-concussions that show no symptoms.  Think of it this way: if your child smoked for years, and they then stopped smoking, all of the lung damage from those cigarettes would heal.  But the brain injuries from football and soccer do not. They.  Never.  Heal. 

The problem is, I love football, and so does my baby Jake.  It will be very hard to say no.  Not only that, I do care about cool, maybe more than I should.  I moved around a LOT as a child. I changed schools almost every year, and sometimes twice in a year.  Sometimes I was cool, most times not, and I can say this:  it is WAY better being cool.  In fact, this blog isn’t about football at all.  This blog is about raising kids that are cool.  I want my kids to be popular.  I tell myself that the positive reinforcement, self-esteem, support network and early successes that come with childhood popularity must translate into a headstart toward adult success.  Right?  As it turns out, the answer is, of course, maybe.  In his 2017 book “Popular”, UNC professor and author Mitch Prinstein talks about two major categories of adolescent popularity (or lack of), and how those types of popularity influence long term success as an adult.  Those categories are status and likeability.   Status-based popularity is more common and focuses on hierarchy.  These are the kids that leverage dominance and aggression to claw their way to top of the social food chain, and then do what it takes to stay there.  These kids are often more feared than they are liked.  Likeability-based popularity is less common and is represented by the kids that fit in broadly, respect everybody, bridge social cliques, and gain respect in return.  You already know where this is going, right?

At a high level, popularity based on likeability translates much more positively to long term adult success.  These are the skills that makeup society’s influencers.  I’ve been an executive in two Fortune 100 companies and can tell you that the executive ranks are full of people that unite diverse team members, build coalitions, can personally relate to everybody at every level, and sometimes most importantly, are somebody that peers want to work with.  This is what I want for my children, and what I will strive to teach them throughout their lives.

This isn’t to say that status doesn’t matter.  Of course, it does.  Throughout the animal world, and in particular with mammals, status and social dominance drive every aspect of quality of life.  In children, who have an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and therefore behave more like adult chimpanzees than they do adult humans, it seems natural to fight for and fight to maintain status.  But as we get further into adulthood and make decisions more and more based on that PFC, these bullying, oppressing, and self-centered behaviors are shunned more and more.  In fact, Dr. Prinstein’s long term studies show that children who focused on status-based popularity in high school and never matured beyond that, had more relationship issues, more drug abuse, and less career success.

I know what you’re thinking.  We all know (or think we know) the adult bullies and corporate sociopaths that earned their success on the backs of their coworkers.  They continue to succeed through aggression and social dominance, and never seem to get what’s coming to them.  But I submit to you that these people are by far the exceptions to the rule, and in part, that’s why you notice them so much.  In one of my companies, my division alone had about 4,500 people, maybe 400 managers/directors, and about 150 execs.  Among those execs, maybe 5 of them were bullies.  We all knew who they were.  The other 145 of them?  People who fell into the likeability category.

As a parent, the good news is you don’t have to try to get your kids to choose between status and likeability.  In fact, maybe you shouldn’t.  When you combine those two categories and look at long term success, this is how it tends to play out.

High Likeability, High Status:  Kids who can excel at both of these are really preparing to be the leaders and main influencers of our future.  They achieve at a high level individually but recognize that there were a lot of other people that contributed in many ways.  They recognize the need to help others achieve in similar ways and know that we’re all in this together. 

High Likeability, Low Status:  Kids who opt out of the mainstream power cliques and instead focus on building positive, meaningful relationships with a smaller group of friends are still well ahead of the curve.  They value other people, and as they mature alongside their peers into adulthood, they will see other people valuing them more and more.  This is the long term play for adult success, and it is a good way to go.

High Status, Low Likeability:  The younger you are, the better this approach works.  It gives you a head start into college, and may even boost your wins as an early adult.  We’ve all known corporate bullies, and those that dominate the early conversations tend to be given early leadership roles and get to management a little quicker.  But they also tend to stall there.  I can’t tell you how many high individual achievers have been passed up for promotions simply because nobody at the next level wants to work with them.  We don’t say that and come up with different “official” reasons, but the result is the same.  If you’re a jerk, you’re going to isolate and limit yourself the older you get.  As a parent, the key here is to make sure that, even if your children focus on this for a while (perfectly natural), you should do your best to get them to grow beyond it as soon as you can. 

Low Status, Low Likeability:  Needless to say, this is trouble.  Low self-esteem, social isolation, regardless of your individual qualifications.  This is a formula that stays with you throughout adulthood.  It is more difficult to change than the other categories and can be debilitating.  Keep your children away from here if you can.

So yes, I want my kids to be popular.  And I do NOT want them to play football.  Or soccer, for that matter (head a ball kicked 40+ mph over and over in practice and your child’s brain will look like a boxer’s).  Now though, I want to be more thoughtful about how they achieve that popularity.  I want to be able to continually reinforce the values that make them likable, even if it takes a while, and even if it means sacrificing a little status along the way. 

What are your thoughts?  Do you care how popular your children are?  What are your strategies?