Catherine Scott: Geek lessons for pupils on the art of popularity

As my daughter is about to leave the safety of her cosy primary school, to be thrust out into the big bad world of secondary school, I am spending a lot of time working out how best to prepare her for what lies ahead.

Like most girls her age she has already experienced the good and bad of female relationships where girls strive to be in with those deemed ‘popular’. At the time she learnt some painful lessons at a very young age which I do think will help equip her for the “vipers’ den” which she is bound to feel she has entered come September.

These girls might be popular, but are they happy?

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We all know what it is like to want to fit in, to be part of the in crowd, in some cases no matter what the cost to our own personal integrity. Equally it is likely she will come across “mean girls” and we as parents have to help them deal with the bullies and problems which will undoubtedly come their way at the hands of their own gender. I will save the dangers posed by the opposite sex for another column!

While we all want our children to be popular, we want them to be confident and happy, and we also want them to be individuals.

I recently heard an interview on the radio with a 15-year-old girl which gave me heart.

Just two years ago Maya Van Wagenen was a social outcast at school; shy, geeky, and overweight, she was bullied by her classmates and had very few friends.

In desperation, her mother suggested she follow tips from a 1950s popularity guide and keep a diary of the results.

Not only did the experiment transform the way Maya was viewed at school, but the diary she kept, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, won her a two-book deal from Penguin with a reported $300,000 advance and the Dreamworks studio has now bought the movie rights for her best-selling book.

What is refreshing about Maya is her honesty and her refusal to change just to fit in.

She also turns on its head what we think makes people popular. “The definition of popularity so often 
portrayed in the media is that you have to be mean to the people lower down,” she says. “But I don’t think 
that’s popularity. I thinks it’s about being kind and being aware of other people and smiling.”

Through her nine-month experiment following the often outdated Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, she realised that self-confidence and breaking down barriers were the best tools in her armoury.

I may have to buy a copy.