Quick note: I'm happy to share this guest post by Drew Arms. She's a college professor and mom. And she's always a bright spot in my day when I chat with her at school drop off! Thank you, Drew.
“Oh, they don’t talk to me. I’m not one of the cool girls.” My heart sank when my nine year old made this comment about some of her classmates. She didn’t seem too sad about it, and she soon went on to talk about how “cool” her locker chandelier was. But I felt a little sad. In kindergarten, “cool” only applied to things, not people. What is it that divides kids into the “cool” and “uncool”?
Unfortunately, my perspective is pretty one-sided. I wasn’t one of the cool girls either. When I was in middle school, I understood this to mean that I didn’t have the right haircut (I didn’t have bangs when everyone else did), I didn’t wear the right clothes (no Esprit or Benetton for me; “Why would I buy you a t-shirt that costs $30 because it has “Benetton” on it?” my oh-so-practical mother asked), I was overweight (which automatically banished me from the cool group), I didn’t dance, cheerlead, or play soccer. I spent much of middle and high school feeling a lack of approval.
So, what makes a cool girl? Cool girls, at least in my experience, are not necessarily mean girls as the movies would have you believe (though some are) but a select group whose parents socialize with one another, who do after-school activities together, who dress similarly, who close off their circle of friends pretty quickly and tightly, and who seem to find strength and identity in being part of this group.
One of my college students astutely pointed out that labeling someone as “not cool” is the last socially acceptable way to discriminate. Most of my daughter’s peers understand that you’re not supposed to say you don’t like someone because they’re overweight, or poor, or of another race. But on the playground, you can ignore, tease, and belittle someone because they’re not cool, and that’s reason enough.
Part of the reason that my daughter isn’t thought of as cool has nothing to do with her, but with me. Her father and I don’t move in a lot of social circles and don’t aspire to; we’re happy homebodies. Also, my daughter and I are introverts, and introverts tend not to be in the cool crowd. Introverts, being introverts, don’t feel the need to have or even want the group dynamic. In fact, it’s tiring, it takes too much energy.
Still I didn’t think any of this would be a convincing or comforting response to my daughter. I didn’t want her to understand the girls’ treatment of her as a valid judgment on her. That she lacked anything, or was somehow unacceptable. What to say?
“Hey, I wasn’t cool in school, but I turned out ok.” Or “You’re cool to me.” Or “Who cares what they think or what they do? You be you. Why would you want to be a cool girl anyway?”
What a dumb question. Everyone wants to be some version of “cool.” Being cool is important. I get it. If your peers think you are cool, it’s a nice boost to your self-esteem. And in this town, like many, being thought of as cool or popular really does have material benefits: the cool people hang out together, network, and land each other jobs, positions on boards, timeshares in Florida. “Cool” often translates as important.
But – and I’m paraphrasing Aristotle here – being cool isn’t the same as being happy. And even the cool people want to be happy.
So I could tell my daughter the truth: being cool is completely relative. It’s dependent on other people’s perceptions, opinions and whims, which you can’t control, under ever-changing circumstances. It also depends on your own self-perception. If you think you’re cool, doesn’t that make you so? Isn’t it cool to be unashamedly whoever you are?
The overwhelming problem with putting any kind of premium on “coolness” is that it’s so very insular. The more you turn inward, associating only with those like you, drawing your strength and values in validating the qualities of those like you, the less practice you have in displaying empathy, thinking critically, being open-minded and open-hearted with those not like you. There is a dangerous mindset that accompanies this group-think, and many writers have commented on the adolescent dangers of peer pressure. But the danger extends to the excluded, for even an outsider who dubs the popular girls “snobs” to cover the hurt of exclusion risks becoming someone who discriminates and rejects.
Early in the novel Jane Eyre, the young Jane is excluded by the wealthy Reed family because she is poor and plain. When Aunt Reed tells her children they are not to associate with Jane, Jane in turn cries out passionately and defiantly, “They are not fit to associate with me!” She responds to their rejection of her by rejecting them. I remember my college professor remarking, “You see, Jane is as hard-hearted, in her own way, as the Reeds.” And there’s real vulnerability in that attitude – not just the risk of hurt feelings and low self-esteem but the threat of giving in to anger, pride, even violence.
What’s the answer? What are we as parents supposed to do about it? Kids will always divide themselves into groups, and there will always be a hierarchy of those groups based on some criteria, and it will shape our children’s self-esteem.
Well, it turns out, the answer is hanging on the wall of my daughter’s bedroom. It’s a canvas, made by another one of my college students, that reads: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you know is fighting some kind of battle.” This quotation has been attributed to almost every inspirational figure from Plato to Walt Disney. I see it now as a cure to the dangers of “cool.” And if “cool” is defined as “admirable,” “fashionable,” “acceptable” – well, cool! It’s acceptable to be accepting of everyone you know, and then some. The more we can convince our children that it’s cool to be openly kind and open-hearted, by lesson and example, the better. By this standard, I hope both my daughter and I are one of the cool girls.