High schools always had students who were considered nerds or jocks. But kids today have a lot more labels for each other than they used to, says author Alexandra Robbins. Roam the halls of a typical school and you might find cliques of gamers, indies, loners, emos, freaks, normies, bros, scene kids, bandies, and tanorexics.
Robbins’ 2006 book The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids followed students from Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, her alma mater. For her latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School, out in early May, she interviewed hundreds of students across the country about labels, cliques, and social hierarchies.
We checked in with Robbins to find out what she learned.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
Since The Overachievers came out, I’ve been doing a lot of lectures and talking to kids across the country. One thing that struck me is that many of the students I was most drawn to were in some way different, and they felt that because they weren’t part of the “in” crowd that they were socially inadequate. I didn’t see them that way at all. I saw them as really interesting, cool people who were going to be really interesting, cool adults.
What is “quirk theory”?
In a nutshell, that the traits for which you are excluded in school are the same traits that are going to make you an interesting, admired, respected, compelling adult.
Why is that?
Popular kids don’t necessarily know who they are because they’re so busy trying to conform. It’s the outcasts who are more attuned to who they are. They’re more self-aware, more real.
What kind of kid were you in high school?
I always assumed I was a floater—someone who could sit at the edge of lunch tables of different crowds. But I think I was also probably a dork. And you know what? Now I’m proud of being a dork.
How has high school changed since you were at Whitman in the 90s?
I would hate to be in high school now. Psychologists talk about the “imaginary audience” that teens seem to feel they have around them and that makes them think they have to keep up their image all the time. Now with Facebook and MySpace and 24/7 online access, that imaginary audience has become real. They are being watched, and it’s really hard.
What makes some kids popular?
The three qualities that researchers say popular kids have are: They’re visible, they’re recognizable, and they’re influential. If you look at a pep rally, who does the school thrust in front of the student body? The cheerleaders and the athletes. So they’re automatically saying these kids are visible, these kids are recognizable, these kids are influential. Therefore they’re popular.
What the kids call ‘mean popular’ and ‘nice popular’ are actually what psychologists are coming to call ‘perceived popular’ versus popular. What psychologists are finding is that the kids who are perceived popular—the kids who are considered the top of the social hierarchy—they’re actually not very well liked, but they’re viewed as being socially successful.
If the perceived popular kids are the only ones viewed as socially successful, then what does that say about the other 98 percent of the school? Those other kids often feel that they’ve failed socially—you’re either a resounding success or a complete failure and there’s nothing in between. It’s as if there’s an ideal and it’s narrowing and the kids who refuse to or can’t or don’t blend in to that ideal are automatically considered outcasts.
Are ‘perceived popular’ kids happier?
They’re often a lot less happy than the kids who are not considered socially successful.
Is there more designer clothing in high school than there used to be?
Yes. In part, I think, because kids are so much more aware of what celebrities are wearing and because thanks to the Internet it’s so much easier to find the clothes. It’s not an excuse to some crowds that ‘Oh, we don’t have a store here that sells it.’ You can get it online.
There’s a school in Texas where the new trend is to keep the tags on their clothes so they can prove that they bought their designer items at a real designer store rather than a discount store.
Are we just talking about rich kids or are middle-class and lower-income kids spending more on clothes?
They’re spending more on clothes and they’re feeling stressed when they can’t. It’s as if that automatically keeps them out of the popular crowd.
What I’m saying is, you shouldn’t look the same way. You should wear what you want to wear and not worry about trying to paint yourself in a certain image because that self-awareness is what’s going to help you become a more independent and more interesting and healthier adult.
What do parents not understand about teens?
I get a lot of questions about how much they should let their kids be on Facebook. A lot of parents don’t understand that Facebook is its own social space. It’s not that kids are going online to meet strangers. They are using Facebook as a tool to maneuver their relationships and to cement their friendships and that’s really important. Think of it like a roller-rink was in the ’50s. There aren’t a lot of safe public spaces for teens anymore where they can hang out unsupervised. Facebook is one of those spaces.
What advice do you have for parents whose kids are being excluded?
If your kids is being excluded and is okay with it, then you should be okay with it, too. Parents should cross their child’s social status off of their list of things to worry about. If your kid is happy with one or two close friends, then leave her be.
What if the child is unhappy?
The first thing you can do is make sure that at home the child can be and do and feel anything that they want to. You should have an open line of communication.
Your child should know that even if they go about something in a different way than you would, it’s okay. It’s okay for a child to have a different opinion from a parent. It’s a really important lesson that even if they disagree with something that you say you’re going to love them anyway.
Parents also can encourage them to be involved in activities outside the school, with kids who don’t go to the same school because those students aren’t going to know how the kid is labeled already. It’s like the student has a fresh start and can be appreciated for who he or she is rather than a reputation at school.
What can schools do to encourage inclusion?
One simple thing is cafeteria seating—there are a bunch of things that can be done to encourage more mingling among cliques in the cafeteria. Among them, have a variety of types of seating in the cafeteria rather than long tables. There should be different size tables with different numbers of chairs so that groups of various sizes can find places where they can convene. It also would be helpful to have some loose chairs set out to encourage students to pull up a chair to other tables and then to move, to let the floaters go to one group, go to another. That allows a group to shrink or expand depending on what students want.
Some schools take a day a year or a day a month and assign cafeteria seating. I think e
very school should try that at least once a month. It will allow students to get to know people outside of their cliques. If they get to know just one or two things about a student beyond their label, then that automatically changes their perception of that student and it makes that student less of an outsider.
Schools can also examine how they might be contributing to the social hierarchy. If you have a pep rally for sports teams and there’s a math meet coming up, at least offer the math team a chance to participate in the pep rally. They may not want to, but give them the opportunity. Or if a school has a no-homework night the night of the championships for boys basketball, they have to do the same thing for the championships for girls soccer and the chess team and debate team. Even if students don’t end up going to watch those other activities, the school needs to say that they’re on equal grounds.
This article is an extended version of an interview that originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of the Washingtonian. Alexandra Robbins will be speaking at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda on Saturday, May 7th at 2 PM.