I don’t know how your school experience was, but looking back and thinking about my fellow students, I seem to particularly remember several kids who always appeared to be leading charmed lives. Popular, erudite, smart, athletic kids from two-parent families, with great teeth, great hair, perfect bodies, and the coolest clothes. Everybody wanted to hang out with them, be like them, and most importantly, be accepted by them.
As a geeky, nerdy, introverted, dyslexic kid with unusually big ears and a very broken home, I often felt left out of the cool club. Way out. Perhaps you had a similar experience.
But a 2014 study from the University of Virginia published in the Journal of Child Development is comforting to those of us who were less cool, or who are the parents of less cool kids.
According to this study, kids who try too hard to be cool often struggle later in life. These kids date earlier, start partying earlier, engage in risky behaviors earlier, and view school as a social event rather than a place to learn. The study followed the lives of 184 Charlottesville, Virginia, kids from middle school through age 23. The participant demographic represents a cross section of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
Results of the study show that later in life, those cool kids were more likely to have bigger troubles than their less-cool counterparts. As young adults, they were using 40% more drugs and alcohol than the “not so cool” kids and were 22% more likely to be running into troubles with the law.
“Long term, we call it the high school reunion effect,” said Joseph Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study.
“You see the person who was cool…did exciting things that were intimidating and seemed glamorous at the time, and then five or 10 years later, they are working in a menial job and have poor relationships and such, and the other kid who was quiet and had good friends but didn’t really attract much attention and was a little intimidated is doing great.”
“It’s … revenge of the quiet, good kids,” he added.
While most studies of teen behavior focus on success as teens, this is the first of its kind to follow teen behavior as it translates into adulthood.
What behaviors were measured?
- How many people had they “made out” with?
- Had they sneaked into a movie without paying?
- Had they stolen items from parents or family members?
- Had they damaged or destroyed property belonging to parents?
- Had they used drugs and/or marijuana?
- How attractive were their closest friends?
- Who they were most likely to hang out with on a Saturday night?
- How important it was for them to be popular with as many kids as possible?
Allen says teens trying so hard to be cool early in adolescence find the rewards of popularity in the short term, but their approach ultimately leads to a “dead end.”
“It’s a shortcut to looking grown up, but like lots of shortcuts, it’s keeping them from doing the things that actually make one more mature,” he added. “The detour notion or metaphor really captures it, that they really are off on a different track that was appealing when they took the road but that they just find themselves deeper and deeper in and they have to engage in more and more serious kinds of behaviors to try and get their friends’ approval.”
“So when we talk about alcohol and marijuana use, these are the kids who are most likely drinking three six-packs, when they’re 20 on up, on a weekend night to tell their friend what wild and crazy exploits they engaged in.”
While kids learn important social skills in school, school is not a social event, and treating it as such leads to precious educational opportunities missed.
“Many of the teens who are going to do the very best in life are the ones sitting quietly on the sideline listening closely to those stories of the wild weekends,” said Allen. “They’re not the ones who are engaged in them.”
What’s the takeaway for parents here?
- Encourage your child to develop their love of reading and learning. It will serve them well for life.
- Help your child foster sound relationships with peers who share common goals and values, even if that means they have a smaller group of friends
- Freely offer your praise of your child’s efforts, character traits, and approval of wise choices. Be verbal and demonstrative. Kids who strive to be cool are looking for peer approval to replace what they’re not getting at home.
- Be alert for signs of anxiety or depression in your child that could set the stage for early substance use, and get professional help for your child if you suspect mood issues.
“Pay attention as a parent to what’s going to get your child to a happy spot, to a productive healthy spot as an adult,” said Allen. “Keep your eyes on the long picture and don’t get so distracted by how they’re doing in the short term and what might predict that they’re a little more popular and a little more interesting in the short term.”
I enjoyed this post. I was not a super “popular” person in high school, but I did have friends. My friends were all a grade behind me, but we were the same age. I have a late August birthday. Went to my 10 year high school reunion with a law degree and a good job in Houston. I was amazed at how all the popular kids had not amounted to much, and all the nerds were doing quite well…..It was a good lesson for me.
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