The Path to Popularity


Finally-a formula parents can use to give their kids a leg up in the dreaded junior high popularity contest. It's just a matter of using the right parenting style. Parents who are friendly and supportive, rather than aloof or bossy, when their kids need help are more likely to be the proud parents of popular kids. It's the difference between authoritative and authoritarian.

Authoritative parents are more affectionate and pay closer attention to kids' needs for attention and help. They treat their kids more like equals and usually manage to maintain the upper hand without the stern discipline of authoritarians.

If a child asks for help with a math problem, an authoritarian parent may respond, "Figure it out yourself" or "It's obvious: the answer is 10." This parent believes in maximum discipline, minimum help, and fears that being too soft on kids is bad.

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If The Netherlands team's research is anything to go on, authoritarian thinking might be exactly backwards. In a study of 112 elementary kids ages 6 to 11 and their parents, psychologists Maja Dekovic and Jan Janssens found authoritative/democratic parents produced kids who were better liked, based on peer evaluations and teacher reports.

The University of Nijmegen pair set their subjects to work on two puzzles, then sat back and observed parental interest and assistance. Authoritative parents offered more verbal and nonverbal encouragement and freedom of choice. They smiled more often and said things like "You're doing well," "It's difficult, isn't it?" and "Maybe you could try that corner."

Authoritarian parents were more likely to sigh, take over physically, and say things like "Don't do that" and "You're not trying." They were more often dictatorial, impatient, or disinterested.

How do different parenting styles affect the puzzle-working kids? Within their family, those children learned positive behavior patterns that appealed to peers, explains Antonius Cillessen, who developed the tests used in the study. Also, teachers found those kids the most sharing, helpful, and concerned.

What about the unpopular kids? Dekovic and Janssens point out that kids rejected by peers often have numerous negative, conflictive relationships in their past. They suggest social-skills counseling and help for such kids. But when push comes to shove, it's the parent/child relationship that molds a child socially.

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