We parents like to believe that our sons really do enjoy getting sweaters for Christmas and that they'll floss every day at summer camp. Our boys will choose nutritious foods, and their friends will be polite, clarinet-tooting, soccer-playing A students. But parents who share this last belief, especially, had better take themselves to a wholesome double feature, because in the real world, kids, like adults, are impressed by power. And power doesn't always come in savory packages.
A new study released last week cuts a window into the world of boy cliques, showing that many of the boys in grades 4 through 6 who are rated most popular by their peers are "extremely antisocial." Many are fighters: tough kids who are mediocre students and yet dominate the classroom.
The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, looked at 452 boys from a variety of backgrounds. The researchers found that boys who are granted high social status by their classmates are not only the "model" children who are smart, cool, athletic and respectful. Fully a third are boys who use aggression to achieve and maintain their popularity. Philip Rodkin, lead researcher for the study, says that while aggression can be alienating, it can also make a kid powerful and popular at a young age.
Rodkin says aggressive children can have positive traits such as athleticism and competitiveness. But a fourth-grader who is awarded high status for aggression might never learn other social skills. He might know how to relate to other kids only through dominance--an approach that will severely limit him later on.
Obviously, our sons can't all be Opie Taylors. Some are Arthur Fonzarellis, and a great many fall somewhere in between. William Pollack, author of the terrific book Real Boys, says the popularity study shows that "we still give a message that aggression and fighting work for boys." Parents who can't imagine their son's being a tough guy should be aware that a fourth-grader's home life and his school life are often quite different. Your son may be getting the message at school that the way to be popular is through aggression. Or he may be fighting because he is scared. You may tell yourself that your son is fine because he has lots of friends. But Pollack's book details the harrowing experiences of "tough" boys who anesthetize themselves against their feelings and those of others. Last year's events in Littleton, Colo., showed how some boys lash out when they feel constantly bullied.
Parents need to make every effort to understand the culture of their son's school. First, engage him in an activity, whether it's bowling or digging for nightcrawlers. (Boys are unlikely to open up on cue at the dinner table.) Ask how much fighting he sees at school and how he feels about it. If your son says that boys in his class act "tough" or "cool" or that he is getting pushed around, try to help him form friendships with kids who won't dominate him. A group of buddies can inoculate one another against bullies and can even redefine what "cool" is. Parents should insist that schools reward good behavior, punish physical violence, encourage children to excel and direct their natural aggression onto the playing field or into the marching band, where they can play at full strength and be praised for their efforts.