Today we have a guest post from Elise Allen, the author of Populazzi, and co-author of Elixir and upcoming Devoted with Hilary Duff. To find out more about Elise, or about her books, you can visit her site EliseAllen.com
I have an almost-seven year old daughter. She’s my only child, and really, the center of my husband’s and my universe. I call her Miss M in the blogosphere, because I like to be reasonably careful about these things.
Miss M is spectacular. Yes, I recognize I’m more than a little bit biased, so take it with a grain of salt, but I’m blown away by her. She’s utterly unique. Her comic timing is impeccable, she can hold her own in a room of adults without being precocious, and she has strong opinions she’ll share without any regard for whether or not anyone else agrees. This is a girl who decided to bring her blanket to school with her one day in first grade, and when other kids gave her a hard time about it, she was so unfazed that by the end of the day, they all wanted time with her blanket too.
Miss M is fearless, and every day I look at her, imagine her six to ten years from now, and hope like crazy she can hold on to that courage when she’s so buffeted by everyone else’s definition of what’s cool that she can barely remember her own.
In Populazzi, Cara Leonard has always been at the bottom of the Popularity Tower. She has a grand total of one really close friend, Claudia, and feels completely invisible to the rest of the high school universe. When she switches schools, Claudia gives her a blueprint to re-invent herself and climb to the very top of the Popularity Tower. Cara goes for it, but not just because she wants to be popular. What she wants is more specific and deeper than that, though she herself would have trouble putting it into words. When Cara sees Trista, the Supreme Populazzi (most popular girl in school), she sees someone perfect. Trista is beautiful, she always knows the right thing to say, and people flock to her. Cara dreams of having Trista’s confidence; of being that comfortable in her own skin; of drawing that kind of attention.
Cara would never in a million years say it this way, but when Cara looks at Trista, she sees someone who is loved and accepted for who she truly is. That’s the real goal of anyone seeking popularity – they want to be seen and appreciated for their genuine selves.
Here’s the rub: by definition, if you’re seeking acceptance from others, you’re not going to be your genuine self; you’ll be too busy pretzeling yourself into what they want you to be – or just as detrimentally, what you think they want you to be.
Cara falls into this trap big-time. In fact, that road is spelled out for her in “The Ladder,” the blueprint Claudia gives her. Its whole premise is in order to get to Supreme Populazzi, Cara has to turn herself into the perfect girlfriend for boys higher and higher on the Popularity Tower, so they’ll pull her up to their level. To her credit, Cara balks at first, but in the end she’s way too nervous about being all alone in a brand new place to handle it without that crutch. She nearly avoids disaster again when she falls for Archer, with whom she feels totally comfortable being herself, but when that implodes she’s adrift again, and grabs back onto the Ladder for support.
Cara makes some very bad choices along the road in Populazzi. The book includes underage drinking, pot, massive duplicity, sex (she herself doesn’t have sex, but it’s not for lack of trying), eating disorders… the book is laugh-out-loud funny, but it gets into some dark stuff. For me, what sets it apart is that the choices Cara makes aren’t glossed over; there are always real-life consequences. The consequences aren’t preachy, but they’re not pretty either. They don’t get prettier when she finally makes better choices. Once you dig yourself a hole, getting out can be a painful process.
One of my favorite reviews of Populazzi came from someone who recommended reading it along with tween and teen daughters, as a starting point for conversations about the pitfalls of seeking popularity. I love this, because I do think as parents we have a huge say over how our kids handle peer pressure. I know that’s easy to say as the mother of a mommy-adoring six- year-old, but I’ve had many conversations with teens and parents of teens, and they back me up. There’s a reason Cara Leonard is particularly susceptible to the lure of The Ladder. We see her home life in the book, and there are some major issues. Cara’s used to turning herself inside out to please; her foundation is sand. Claudia was her bedrock, then Archer. Without them, she’s left floundering, which makes her easy prey for the golden chalice of popularity.
That said, I’m not implying that great parents won’t have kids who succumb to peer pressure. They will. I will. For all her fearlessness, Miss M has already come home begging me to let her watch more “grown-up” shows because kids at school said her favorites were “too babyish.” We spoke about it at length, and eventually she was eager to stand up for those shows she truly loved, no matter what other kids thought of them. For my part, I realized she was ready for some more sophisticated fare, and found a couple shows I could feel great about letting her watch. (Penguins of Madagascar and Phineas and Ferb for the record. They’re both really smart and funny, and I love them as much as she does).
I don’t know that anyone gets through middle and high school trauma-free. Part of growing up is pulling away from parents in favor of a peer group. Their acceptance matters. The best we can do as parents is try and instill in our kids enough confidence and self-respect that they can also get acceptance from themselves. If they can be fed by that kind of inner strength – even though they’ll still stumble along the way – they’ll have the self-possession to make far better choices along the way.