I’m not sure what the chances are, but, “Boy, do I ever like that Muffy Mead-Ferro” is what I hope will be going through your mind by the time you get to the end of this column. Ideally, you’ll be thinking how much you enjoyed my observations, what excellent points I made, and how wonderful it would be if only I could be at every party you ever throw from this day forward.
Because you see, one of my most compelling motivations in life is being accepted by others. I can’t help it; I’m a member of a species Aristotle referred to as “the social animal,” and it’s how I’m wired. For good reason, of course. Being accepted by others, also known as being popular, is an important survival mechanism for humans and many other species because group living provides protection from predators, sharing of labor and resources, and of course, it encourages reproduction.
And this explains why my daughter Belle, just nearing the end of fifth grade, is so focused on who does and doesn’t like her at school. And sometimes, it seems, on very little else. Just about to turn 11, she seems to have entered a phase where her familial relationships, while solid, are no longer the ones she cares about most. When we’re on a trip, she wants to buy little souvenirs for her friends. As the weekend approaches, she wants to make sure she has at least two social activities on her calendar. When we plan family activities, she often asks to have one of her friends along – otherwise she won’t enjoy herself all that much. And then there’s the phone. Oh my gosh, Belle’s an Olympic-caliber endurance athlete on the phone.
Based on what I’ve already said about human hard-wiring I can hardly blame her for being concerned about her social status. And yet I’m hoping she’ll rise above it, too. My biggest problem with the quest to be popular is that a lot of it seems to boil down to conformity, or at least that’s how I remember it. As I recall from Junior High School, most people who really stuck out as different weren’t popular. And one of the things that’s always been important to me in my children’s development has been an ability to think for themselves, and being in the habit of doing so. I don’t want them to make life choices in an effort to simply follow the herd. The herd tells you the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, and the right slang to use. The herd mentality might be useful for the purposes of migration but not for thinking of new ideas.
Besides, although I agree that much of our happiness comes from relationships with other people, the person who independently chooses their own path and thinks their own thoughts can end up being the most popular, and happiest, of all. The independent thinker is a leader, not a follower. And it’s the independent thinker who has the greatest capacity to change the world for the better.
I realize, however, that no amount of pontificating by me on this issue is going to change Belle’s focus on who, this month, is her BFF. So I’ll just have to hope that over the long haul she strikes a balance and finds that she only needs a few loyal friends, not fifty. That no matter what she does, some people won’t like her, and life will go on. And that if she makes her own road through life based on her own ideas and beliefs, she’ll tend to attract people with whom she’s truly compatible.
By Muffy Mead Ferro
I grew up on a cattle ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After spending nearly 20 years working as a copywriter in advertising, my first book, Confessions of a Slacker Mom, came out in spring of 2004 and made the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. My second book, Confessions of a Slacker Wife, was released in spring of 2005.