On the top of every parent’s wish list for their kids is the hope for good friends. We instinctively want our kids to be likable people who are happy, healthy, and productive members of society. Adults know that likable people generally have an easier time in life.
However, in the world of social media likes and teenage popularity contests, likability is harder to define. What makes a child likable, and how do we steer our kids towards likability instead of the endless, empty pursuit of status?
The mere definition of likable is often confused with garnering likes as opposed to cultivating real relationships. Author and psychologist Mitch Prinstein explores what it means to be likable as opposed to just having status in his book “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World“. What he finds can help parents make sure their kids pursue likability for the right reasons with the best results.
Likability versus status
Kids generally figure out how to be likable early in life. Grade school children are liked for being helpers and trying to keep the peace. These simple acts help them cultivate those first important relationships separate from their family members.
Prinstein says status rears its ugly head during the adolescent years when being popular is not particularly linked to being liked. There may be a slight correlation, especially among boys, but researchers say the popular girls are usually not liked, but rather feared or revered. Basically, they have status and that earns them minions who want to be around them but not friends who actually find them likable.
If a child is popular, should we care if they aren’t likable? Yes, according to Prinstein and other researchers. The outcome for people chasing the elusive goal of popularity and status isn’t nearly as positive as it is for those who are likable.
Kids who experience popularity continue to crave it throughout life. Their relationships are more complicated as they grow older, and they are more likely to partake in high-risk behavior compared to kids who never received a taste of popularity. Basically, these kids are addicted to the status that comes with popularity into their early adult years, and that doesn’t make them more likable people.
What happens to kids’ brains on status?
We know that simply posting likable content on social media networks is not the same as having relationships with people. In fact, the former could be considered status chasing while the latter is actually being likable and reaping the benefits of those fully realized relationships. According to Pristein, the problem is that our kids’ brains don’t always know the difference.
Being noticed by adding friends or followers or having others share our status updates causes a reaction in our brains, Pristein explains. However, he also says during his interview with Psychology Today that those same parts of our brains are responsive when we take part in behaviors that actually make us likable. Being in a real relationship or helping a friend or stranger has the same effect on the brain as receiving likes on social media. However, it’s obvious which is easier and faster to achieve.
We need to steer our kids towards the latter since the benefits of long-term, healthy relationships are proven. Studies show again and again that people with strong, healthy relationships are likely to live longer, happier lives with less health problems. Teaching our kids likability can have as profound an effect as keeping them from smoking or making sure they eat a healthy diet.
Status-seeking through social media networks has been proven to alter a child’s life as well, just not for the better. Though the study was small, researchers found that a person’s brain lights up when receiving likes on social media the same way it would if they were using cocaine or gambling.
Obviously individuals addicted to social media don’t suffer the same negative effects of drug use, but they still may go through withdrawals when trying to wean off from online status seeking. Plus, they may not be actively seeking face-to-face relationships since that is more work than living through an online persona.
The downside of likable, especially for women
Still, there are many critics who feel that being liked should never be the goal for anyone, especially girls. In a world where women are still viewed unfairly or called bossy in situations where men would be labeled leaders, feminists like Jessica Valenti and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie encourage women to focus on being who they are, not who they think others will like.
Their concerns are worth hearing, but being liked is important for both genders and always has been.
Prinstein explains that in days past, being excluded from a herd left a person open to physical danger, and the least likable people were likely to be the ones left out. Prinstein says that even today our bodies are in danger when our minds focus on the possibility of being left out. That may be because studies show that people who are lonely have a heightened inflammatory response that affects overall wellness and causes physical vulnerability. Even the thought of that outcome can put our bodies in distress. We may not be picked off quickly when separated from the herd, but we slowly destroy our health when fears of being without others take over.
However, we do want to proceed with caution when talking to our kids about being likable. We want them to be liked for who they are and not have them twist themselves into someone they’re not just to receive approval. Valenti and Adichie are correct when they say women definitely don’t need to be concerned about being liked by everyone, such as the loud mouth male who thinks ladies should sit down and know their place. We don’t want to raise kids who conform to accommodate horrible belief systems in an effort to be liked.
Teaching compassion and kindness helps ensure our kids are likable, and it doesn’t need to mean we’re raising pushovers. It simply gives our kids the best shot at developing skills that will help them in personal, work, and romantic relationships throughout their lives.