Voted “Most Popular” or “Smartest”

In the last post, I wrote that I wrote about poor old Willy Loman who mistakenly brought up his son to be "well liked" and discounted the neighbor boy who studied for math. The neighbor boy becomes a lawyer and argues a case before the Supreme Court. Loman's son grows up confused and lost. 

Arthur Miller is clearly wagging his finger at American parents who put too much value on their children being the football hero. Being smart and a hardworker is clearly the better value. 

I thought that the play was dated, because who actually thinks that the high school football hero is going to be a success later in life? Hollywood is full of failed football hero tales. Andrew Garfield, the actor who played Biff, was also in the Social Network — a tale of the least popular guy becoming rich. I thought that most American parents want their kid to be the computer geek, rather than the football hero. 

Ragtime thinks I'm wrong and points to this Penelope Trunk post.

Question of the Day – If you had to pick one title for your kid (and only one), would you rather your kid was voted "Most Popular" or "Smartest." Why? 

27 thoughts on “Voted “Most Popular” or “Smartest”

  1. I agree with Ragtime. I don’t think it’s right that parents value popularity over hard work but I think they do. Celebrity culture feeds this a lot by creating the illusion of instant success as the result of little hard work.
    For educated, middle and upper-middle class people like us (I’m assuming) there’s a pretty established path to success: hyper-focus on education from a young age, college, probably more college, professional career, work hard for several decades, retire with a decent sum of money. A majority of Americans don’t see that as a viable path. I think that’s understandable since it’s not clear how much that is still a formula for success for even educated middle-class kids and it’s less so for people who don’t grow up in an environment that stresses education. Starring on a reality tv show is much less likely to result in success than getting an education is and yet former path seems much more attainable for a lot people.

  2. hyper-focus on education from a young age, college, probably more college, professional career, work hard for several decades, retire with a decent sum of money
    When you list it out like that, with death as the implicit last step, it seems really pointless and depressing.

  3. I really don’t want either for my kid. I want them to be known as kind, compassionate, hard-working and responsible. You don’t have to be smart to be any of those things. Sometimes having those attributes makes you popular, but not always.

  4. I’m kind of with Lisa V but I guess I’m going to go half and half. Smart enough, and with enough friends. Since smart is mostly genetics, we work on the friends part. And enrichment, but if one had to go I’d keep the playdates and dump the music lessons.

  5. I’m with Lisa. I don’t want either for my child, because both are stereotypes, and the kids who win them are winning them because they’ve successfully met the teenage stereotype of “popular” or “smart”. And, neither of those teenage stereotypes are good approximations of the skills (in either friendliness and being liked or intelligence and creativity) that matter in the real world.
    I want my kids to be kind, hard-working, responsible, like Lisa, but also smart, creative, resilient, and productive. I don’t think that combination of characteristics wins either contest in high school because in too many high schools, people have to be slotted into types, like casting for teen shows (the, “preppy”, “beauty”, “nerd”, “sporty”). So, you can’t be a beautiful smart girl or a sporty nerd. I want my kid to defy stereotypes.

  6. “I can tell you that the number one skill anyone (from housekeeping to CEO) in my organization has to have is friendliness. If you can’t strike up a conversation with just about anyone, you aren’t the right fit. ”
    (as Lisa wrote in the past thread).
    And, I think that there a lot of jobs for which that is true (and others where having that characteristic makes you special). It is a tremendous tremendous skill, to be able to strike up a conversation with anyone, and not artificially, but because you can convey that you actually want to listen to them. It is important for the obvious “sales”/”service” jobs, but also for lots of other jobs where it allows you to leverage your other skills.
    I think the Lohman quotes in your other post speak to the idea that being “liked” can’t compensate for being unproductive. But, it doesn’t address how much being productive can compensate for not being liked. Or, more specifically, how the two trade off and interact.
    I reject the idea that being “popular” is bad. My daughter and I were having a conversation the other day about the moms in her class that she likes, and I told her that one of the things she likes about them are that they are women who talk to other people like they like them and are interested in what the *other* person has to say. It is a gift, makes the community a better place, and, yes, gets them popularity and access that they can leverage for other things they might want.

  7. So, for Willie Loman and Penelope Trunk, the question was “How to be successful in your career.” They both answered “Be well liked.”
    I think that’s one question, but another more important one is “How to be happiest in life.”
    The problem in Death of a Salesman, though, was that Willie actually wasn’t that Well Liked. He was liked by acquaintances, and I guess by his wife. But he actually wasn’t well liked at all. At least you never saw the dinner party where he was sitting around with a bunch of his best friends from high school who he still stayed closed to, or all of his neighbors who rallied around him.
    I think the corollary to Death of a Salesman is “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where Jimmy Stewart is not really smarter than the average bear, but he really is “Well Liked,” and deservedly so, and that saves him when his business is on the verge of collapse.
    I see Medium Raggirl get really sad sometimes when she finds out that she wasn’t invited to some birthday party or other. She doesn’t really have a lot of friends, and so I try to bite my tongue now that she has a “best friend” who is a fine enough girl, but has very problematic parents. (Um . . . can we move the playdate to OUR house, please?) I want her to not be sad, and not having a friend makes her much more sad than, say, not doing well on a school assignment.
    So, I guess I’d rather have my kid voted “Most Popular,” even though I would pick the other choice if I was choosing for myself. I know I’m much more introverted than the Raggirls are. It may or may not help in their careers, but I think being surrounded by friends will make them happier than just “being smart.”

  8. Just in general, I’m opposed to taken Arthur Miller’s advice because of the movie version of The Crucible. Not only was it absurdly preachy, but Daniel Day-Lewis was in prison with rotting teeth but when he gives his big pre-execution speech, he looks like a guy who just spent $20,000 on cosmetic dentistry.

  9. Smartest and nicest? We try to teach our kids that you hold the door open for old people and ask folks if they come over if they want a drink etc. It’s one thing to be the smartest person in the room or the most popular, but it’s another to be an a****le while doing it.

  10. I think the QOTD needs more details.
    I think half are thinking: Popular nice girl with only “average” intelligence versus Genius with only a handful of friends.
    The other half are thinking: Brainless queen bee who dominates the popular clique and will crush your dreams as long as she can maintain that C- GPA versus Friendless savant solving calculus problems between daily taunts as a social outcast.

  11. bj, at work we actually teach a 6 week course in listening, that everyone is required to take. I’ve been teaching it for the last year. It’s actually really useful not only professionally, but personally. It takes some real practice and doesn’t come naturally to most people.

  12. bj, I like your additions too. In my house, well actually my extended family on both sides, you better add funny. If you aren’t funny you better at least know how to laugh because everyone else in the family places a high priority on funny. And luckily, my kids sincerely are hilarious. I’ve got at least one who should end up doing it for a living.

  13. Two of my three children resemble Sheldon on “Big Bang Theory” and there’s a certain genetic (Asperger) component to it. They will probably NEVER be well-liked or popular, and even if you were able to teach them the fine art of small talk, it would make them so miserable that it would just be cruel. The middle child has better social skills, but she’s failing algebra.
    But I wonder how rare it is that anyone gets BOTH. I remember one guy I knew in grad school who was brilliant and also had really good social skills. I remember that after having rationalized my own lack of friends for years, figuring that that’s just how it goes for smart people, it made me sad to realize that he had efforlessly achieved both.
    I’ve had jobs in fields like diplomacy where I was actively TAUGHT social skills, and now I’m really good at remembering people’s names and interests and making sure that if I see them after a vacation I ask them how their vacation went (Kind of the way Sheldon offers everyone a hot beverage when they’re feeling upset). The problem is that there’s very little reciprocity in these exchanges. I’m expected to ask about your Disney cruise, but you’re not expected to ask about my Fulbright application — because that would be outside your comfort zone.

  14. I would probably vote Smartest, as long as I could enter a caveat that
    that didn’t mean the kid would be friendless and abused. Because I
    think there’s a vast difference between “most popular” and “enough
    friends to have a happy life”; I wouldn’t care about the former (for
    myself, it would freak me out), but the latter is really important.
    That said, I totally agree with the comment from the previous post
    about there still being plenty of parents who would be much more upset
    if their kid didn’t make the football team/cheerleading squad than if
    they got a C in math. I think there are actually a lot of small towns
    like Dillon TX out there still.
    I also suspect all the Tea Partiers out there would vote “Most
    Popular” over “Smartest” in a heartbeat. And there’s a certain kind of
    working-class attitude (at least, there used to be, as seen in earlier
    generations of my family) that would anyone labeled “Smartest” as
    stuck up, and thinking they’re better than everyone else. Because
    “Most Popular” is more subjective, about what others think of you, it
    wouldn’t be quite such a stuck-up thing to be.
    (I also don’t think it has to be either or; I think there’s a certain
    kind of smartness that’s often found with popularity, because that
    intelligence allows you to read other people and interact well with
    them. That’s not the only way to be smart, but it’s one way.)

  15. I take it as one of the points of this post that it’s a sign of a fairly significant historical and cultural change that many parents would now opt for “smart” over “popular” kids. As a parent of a high schooler, what I observe is that the definition of popular has slid pretty considerably over into the smart category since the time I was in high school (um, 30+ years ago). The popular kids *are* the smart kids (who often are also on sports teams, and in student government, and in music or theater): they’re not so much geeks as overachievers, but they’re definitely not the football players or the cheerleaders.
    On the one hand this should be liberating for the non-athletic kid who likes to read and do homework, but on the other hand it’s utterly exhausting, because this also isn’t nearly enough. To put this another way, high school popularity now seems like something of a training ground for a child’s college application results (even in a school where most, but not all, kids are college-bound, and where many of the latter will go to community college).

  16. “I also suspect all the Tea Partiers out there would vote “Most Popular” over “Smartest” in a heartbeat.”
    That’s a bit of an overgeneralization, don’t you think? Remember that Tea Partiers are more well-off than average, and hence probably also above average in intelligence.
    Personally, I don’t really even know what “most popular” means in an adult setting. Who is the most popular mom at my kid’s school or the most popular faculty member in my husband’s department? I have no idea.
    I know that my husband and my son are both very bright and well-liked. My husband is brilliant, humble and kind, and (despite a lack of some conventional social skills) he finds it very easy to make friends within his field.
    It’s been a long time since I read Death of a Salesman in high school, but as I recall, Loman is a pretty hollow character. Without his job, there’s nothing left of him.

  17. As a parent of a high schooler, what I observe is that the definition of popular has slid pretty considerably over into the smart category since the time I was in high school
    Oh, I think it has been this way for a while — at least in some places. I went to a large magnet public High School that you had to apply for and “grade” into. So, all of my classmates were at least B students, and half were A students. But if you walked down the halls, it didn’t look anything like 1,600 kids from the Nerd Frat in Revenge of the Nerds.
    There may be more social ostracism for kids 3 or 4 standard deviations from the norm, but among the “averagely smart” kids they have always been at least as well adjusted and socially integrated as the rest.

  18. I agree with curious monolith. My older daughters had high school G.P.A.s of 3.8 and 3.84. They were in the top 25th percentile. When I was in high school that would’ve gotten you in the top 10%. And it’s not grade inflation. They both take A.P. courses that really are college courses, lots of critical thinking, reading, writing and group work. Homework, homework, homework. The smart, popular kids are pretty much the norm now. My kids have friends who are National Merit Scholars, etc. they are pretty much your usual kid. You have to be REALLY smart to be noticed.

  19. I don’t know. I don’t know if any high schools were really pushing the whole AP “achieve, achieve, achieve” thing that high schools do now.
    I went to probably one of the best elementary schools in town, and the best junior high. However, my kids went to a K-8 far superior to both of those schools.

  20. I would vote for smartest (as would my daughter). If you are truly smart, absent other factors, you can learn to “play the game” to be popular IF you want. She did one year just to see and then made an informed decision to go back to being smart.

  21. I think the families who place a premium on “smart” tend to cluster. It isn’t a universal effect.
    Try this: Tim Tebow or Stephen Hawking?
    Judith Polgar or Kristen Stewart?

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