"Popular kids don't like you to stand next to them for a long time," says a girl in the sixth grade. "That means you're trying to latch onto them. You have to know how to talk to them and what to say to them to get their attention." The speaker, a likable girl who gets good grades, described the popular girls in her class as the epitome of perfection. One could hear in her voice the yearning to belong to that extraordinary breed. "They get everything they want in life," she said sadly.
They, the popular ones, have apparently always been there. It seemed to us in our youth, as well, that those same two or three popular kids led an easy, charmed life, while we were covered in acne. Moreover, it seems that now, more than ever before, children's social status is a condition upon which their happiness and success in life, and that of their parents, depends.
Not coincidentally, the longing to be popular invokes both celebrity culture and the "Star is Born" television series. In the universe of school children, the popular pupil represents that same shining, and perhaps shallow, star who embodies the fantasy of how one is supposed to look if one is happy - like the characters in "High School Musical," for example.
Reality-TV shows that cultivate instant stars amplify the significance that children attach to their place in the social pyramid, explains psychologist Edna Katzenelson. Young people are desperately attempting to break the code that points the way to success and popularity, she says.
Katzenelson, author of the book "Di'alog im yeladim" (Dialogue with Children, Dvir Publishers, in Hebrew), says that popular children represent that which is "average-plus," in her terms. Thus, other children identify with and are attracted to them.
"The criteria for what is socially correct have shifted, in contemporary culture. For example, you have to be well-dressed, and be seen in the right places," Katzenelson says. "The popular children are miniature go-getters. They are not only the athletes, but also the fashion plates and the kids with money."
A sixth-grade girl from the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon illustrates this. "It's boring to go to the house of a kid who doesn't have a yard or a pool. So someone who lives in an apartment building isn't popular."
Katzenelson says that parents believe that if they do not dress their children in designer labels, they will not be popular. But they miss the most important factor.
Popularity relies on an array of currently valued traits: assertiveness, self-confidence and political savvy.
"Children with those qualities are not absolutely immune," Katzenelson notes. "They are also children, and they may fear the dark. But they know how to correctly read the social map."
Popularity is a sensitive subject when one is a child, and no less sensitive when one is a parent. Who does not want his or her child to succeed and be happy? Yet, Israeli parents appear to attach supreme importance to their children's social status - much more than American parents, for example.
Katzenelson ascribes that to the social structure of Israel during the establishment of the state. "In a society of pioneers, on kibbutz and in youth movements, it was important that people get along with each another," she says.
"Those who projected confidence, who knew how to listen to others but also to stand up for themselves, or those who knew how to make everyone laugh, succeeded."
According to Katzenelson, one can also observe the role of history among the many parents whose children are neither unpopular nor the subjects of teasing, but who seek psychotherapy to examine why their children are not popular.
Such parents do not believe that it is sufficient for a child to have two or three friends. Their desire to upgrade their children's social status is so compelling that they join classroom parents' committees, volunteer to drive popular children home, or host extravagant birthday parties with the aim of achieving that objective.
Katzenelson says that it is incorrect to tell a child to ignore the popularity phenomenon. "If a child is always excluded from Friday-night parties and the movies, he suffers," she says. "You have to examine whether there is something wrong with his conduct, from a social point of view."
Katzenelson also believes that the education system fails to address this issue with the gravity that it deserves.
"I am amazed to see that as long as a child functions and the way he is treated doesn't deteriorate into real harassment, teachers are unaware of the popularity phenomenon and the extent to which it affects kids in the classroom," she says.
Sometimes, children attempt to improve their status by making artificial changes. Some said that they had considered switching to another class in the same grade, and some girls attempted to reinvent themselves, when they graduated to junior high school, by distancing themselves from unpopular friends.
Another ploy involved seeking an opposite-sexed mate. Shiri Resnick, who is writing a doctoral thesis at Tel Aviv University about romantic fantasies and myths among elementary school girls, says that one of the traits they ascribe to the boy of their dreams is popularity.
"It is exactly the Cinderella myth," Resnick says. "The prince on the white steed - in other words, the popular boy - will come and save them. He will make them popular and pave their way to happiness and riches."
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