My L. has always been a party-planner. While he’s not a fan of parties in general (too noisy, too many people, too much food), he likes to plan a party, especially when he can be in control of every single detail. But it’s been awhile since he’s shown any interest in planning any type of party, and we’ve been sad about this. Last year was a rough year for him, and he withdrew socially for most of it, and regressed quite a bit. This year is different, though, and we're keeping our fingers crossed, and watching it all unfold.
For weeks now L.’s been asking to have a few classmates over to watch Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and eat pizza. We’ve been busy, what with the H1N1 that felled me for a week, and lots of weekend visitors, and Halloween activities. But this Sunday a few of L.’s classmates will be coming over for what L. has termed “the best party ever”.
He’s excited about the movie. He’s excited about getting pizza ordered and delivered. And he’s excited about the kids (only five in all) who are coming. When I told him the other night that I had just heard back from two of the invited friends he did a loud whoop and nearly jumped out of his pajamas.
“I’ve never had a party like THIS before!”
“Well, you’ve had friends over before,” I reminded him.
“I know!” He said, excitedly, “but I’ve never had any of the popular kids over.”
Oh god, I thought, here we go. The popular kids. There was a time in L.'s school life, not long ago, it seems, when there weren’t popular kids, or the implied antithesis, the unpopular ones. All the kids were more or less on even ground with each other. Kindergarten was like a Utopian kind of world, compared to what happens as elementary school kids grow up and into cliques and clearly labeled divided groups. I had never, until that moment, heard L. use the word “popular” before to talk about kids at school. What did it mean to him, I wondered?
The next day in the car, on the way to school, I brought up the subject again, as we talked about the movie and the kids who were coming over. I asked L. how he defined the “popular” kids in his class and he came up with some specific details:
The popular kids had lots of friends
They liked “popular” things
Everyone liked them
They were funny and social
(He's too young, thankfully, to bring physical attributes into this--maybe as a boy he never will. Maybe this will come later--in the middle school years, perhaps, so help us.)
Sometimes, at challenging parenting moments like that one, I find any advice I try to give out to my kids ends up sounding canned, or abstract, or just unconvincing--kind of the way I remember the advice my parents' gave me sounding to my young ears when I was L.'s age. How do you help a child learn that popularity isn't the be-all-end-all to everything? That the qualities he listed are so arbitrary, really? That getting a few good friends to like and respect you for who you are can make you rich and happy, just as easily as the fleeting satisfactions of being popular? It's hard to explain all this, because being popular does count, and to a child it can be everything. Not being in that golden group can make a child feel frustrated, and isolated, and friendless. Not being popular can be a child's first major brush with how arbitrarily unfair life can be, and for kids, issues of fairness or unfairness really, really sting.
Oh, I still remember that sting.
While I pondered how to better explain all this to L., in ways he would understand, I realized that there just wasn't a simple, satisfying way to explain to any child that popularity just shouldn't matter, even if it does. They have to come to learn this themselves, the hard way for some, or the easy way for others. As a parent you have to help nurture in your child a strong sense of self-esteem, and show them unqualified acceptance and love at home. You have to teach them about fairness and justice and self-worth.
Then you cross your fingers, and hope it will all stick.
"Mama," L. said unexpectedly from the back seat as we pulled into the school parking lot. "I'd say I was a 52."
I was confused, of course. "A 52 what?"
"I'd say I was a 52 on the popularity scale."
"How does the scale work?" I asked.
"Well, a 1 would be really popular, and 100 would be the lowest."
"I guess 52 is somewhere in the middle," I said.
He thought about this. "Last year I'd say I was about a 98. In second grade I was probably in the 60s range, and in kindergarten and first grade I was nothing--just invisible."
How many times can a mom's heart shatter?
"So 52--52 is pretty good." He said, hopping out of the car, a spring in his step.
52, I thought. Well, we'll take it, I guess.