Social behavior is innate. Kids don’t learn it in school.

When we talk about school being a place to socialize kids, let’s be clear that it’s a place to socialize kids who like school. If you’re an outcast, what you learn is that you don’t fit in and that it’s hopeless.

We could talk about how the kids who don’t fit in are the ones who go on to invent huge companies and have intellectual breakthroughs. But I’m not going to focus on that.

What I’m going to focus on is that kids who are popular at school are nicer than the other kids. Really. Studies show. This means that if you want your kid to get those mysterious benefits of socialization, just teach the kid empathy.

But that’s easier said than done. Because empathy starts to happen at birth, and it’s well-formed by age eight. And if we could teach empathy, there would be no kids with autism because a large part of what plagues people with autism is their lack of empathy. Empathy is not logical, so it has a hard time fitting in the autistic brain. If we could teach empathy, we could teach it to kids with autism.

But empathy is, in fact, simply a result of decent parenting very early in life for neurotypical kids because they are hard-wired to learn empathy just by watching the reaction of adults.

So socialization is the process of learning by way of fitting in at school. And people who fit in at school are nicer than most of the other kids. So you no longer have to worry that your kid won’t be socialized if you take the kid out of school. Just as autism and intellectual cowboy are hard-wired at birth, so, too, is popularity. Whether or not your kid is in school.

25 replies
  1. MBL
    MBL says:

    Oh this is so, so, so wrong. I don’t even know where to go with this. The study linked to was regarding pre-schoolers. Even if the study were to hold true for that age group, it certainly doesn’t fit with the mean girls, jock bully situation that many sensitive children face down the line. If popularity were linked to empathy, there would be no outcast kids. Popularity is often, but not always, about the ability manipulate. This does require a certain amount of “mind reading”, per the study, but how it used may have nothing to do with empathy.

    Herd mentality survives by turning on ‘other.’ It is a survival strategy that actually flies in the face of the, perhaps, evolutionary advancement of empathy.

    My sob story. In first grade I witnessed kids teasing a physically handicapped boy. I knew if I said something they would turn on me and I was saddened by that knowledge, but okay with it. I knew it was the right thing to do. I spoke up and they did, as expected, turn on me. What absolutely broke me was that the boy saw an opportunity to join in and jumped on it.

    Regarding Asperger’s and empathy, it absolutely pisses me off when someone tosses off the “autism equals zero empathy” bunk. Yes there seems to be different wiring, but the issue is a numbers game. If Aspies think differently from NTs, then it stands to reason that when an Aspie applies the golden rule, they may well look like a jerk. And then be bewildered and learn that they shouldn’t put themselves out there and interact. An average NT child (or adult for that matter) may not have to think all that hard about putting themselves in someone else’s shoes if they all wear the same sized shoes. I am nauseatingly empathetic, to the point of inertia for fear of offending someone, but have to try really hard to figure out how to interpret and translate to AspieSpeak. I have to consciously think about how their brain works differently than mine and figure out if they realize how their comment or action could come across. And then figure out what they most likely meant, and then get clarification.

    I am constantly astounded by how effortlessly Aspies tend to get along with each other. (Your connection with Melissa, for example.) With direct instruction from me, my daughter now really takes the time to try to figure out where the other (NT) person is coming from and react accordingly. And she is amazing and is now actually beyond her years on many social fronts. But she has an Aspie radar and gravitates towards like-minded thinkers.

    Best scene ever is on Big Bang Theory when Sheldon informs Penny that, actually, she is the weird one in the room.

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      just anecdotally, from running a preschool for several years, i don’t think it’s true for preschoolers either. some kids who were very popular (age four) were horrible to other kids — they were mini mean girls who excluded and teased and said “we’re not playing with you today.” some nice kids were popular, but there was a definite trend of mean = exclusive = everyone wants to be your friend.

  2. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    It is absolutely possible to teach empathy! We did it step by step over many years, teaching our son how to read the behavior of others and react appropriately. We had to approach the effort intellectually, as that’s how he processed information. We recognized his insensitivity when he was a toddler and started our effort then. It helped that he was homeschooled from the start because we were always whispering guidance in his ear when he was with others. It took years, but he’s now grown now into a very caring adult.

  3. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    This isn’t a blog, it’s a blargh. Maybe there’s a quota Penelope is behind on, but this random assortment of contradictory nonsense is so far from a coherent argument it’s disappointing.

    For example, the link behind the assertion that empathy is well-formed at age eight, and we can’t teach empathy, instead of going to an external source expanding on that idea, goes to a source that talks about how you can teach empathy to your child. The only mention of eight year olds there is to say that by eight (after years of teaching empathy to your child) you should be able to teach your child even more complex interpersonal morality.

    Likewise, it would have been a far more interesting post if the link asserting an external source for the idea that kids who are popular at school are nicer than the other kids went to an article or study supporting that idea. But of course it doesn’t. It links to a study regarding preschoolers – and anybody who’s sent their kid to daycare knows what negative social behavior looks like at age three. It’s not the sometimes alluring but never nice in-group / out-group machinations of negative social behavior in high school. It’s not sharing toys and biting. This has nothing at all to do with Penelope’s assertion regarding school children. If you’re still biting in fifth grade, you’re not mainstreamed.

    And what in the world either unsupported assertion has to do with the “mysterious benefits of socialization” remains quite vague. Perhaps this post should have been entitled “yet another leap of faith,” because the eventual conclusion that “popularity is hard-wired at birth” follows so poorly from the evidence given that it seems a non-sequitur.

    I’d love to sympathize and agree with whatever Penelope says, but sometimes she makes it impossible.

    Is there a coffee shortage in Wisconsin?

  4. Julie
    Julie says:

    Well, I think human beings are hardwired with the capacity for empathy. I agree with you that it is learned primarily through family relationships. Children with attachment disorders have difficulty with empathy. I think they can learn it, but that tends to come through the extreme dedication of adoptive parents, for example, not school. And it doesn’t always happen. School forces children to ignore their own empathy or pay a price themselves. I think most institutions are like that. Certainly school is not a place that encourages empathy let alone teaches it, in my opinion.

    Popular kids may have more empathy and be popular because they are kind. I knew people like that, liked by everyone. But that was unusual. I think, within their own cliques kids may have empathy for eachother, in a controlling sort of way. They are not going to show empathy for kids outside their own group so much. They may have it but they are not going to show it unless they are very courageous.

    So I think a better argument for homeschooling is that schools work against children being able to continue to grow and express their empathy. And this would make it an especially bad place for a child who isn’t so much hardwired with the capacity to form empathy or maybe just hardwired differently, which is my child.

  5. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    There’s a big difference between Popular by fear and Popular by respect.

    Let’s face it, fear is a great motivator, and its the easiest to use. We tend to remember the popular kids that motiviated by fear than by respect.

    Respected girls have empathy, feared girls don’t.

    I’ve known kids from both angles and the feared ones are the ones I remember better b/c fear is a stonger, faster angle, but a short lived one.

    Facebook is a great metiator of this. The former poplular feared girls are only friends with the ones they traveled tightly with in high school. The outcasts and sideliners no longer feel the threat to treat her nice b/c they no longer fear them. They are not friends with them on facebook even though they pretended to in HS.

    The respected girl is still friends with all the people she talked to innner circle or not and even some the feared girls, but only b/c the feared girls asked her to be friends with them, not the other way around…

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Hello, everyone.

    There are two core assumptions in this post and I am definitely right about both of them.

    1. Empathy cannot be taught. There is a well-established list of mental disorders around inability to feel empathy. Aspergers and Prader-Willi are two of the most thoroughly understood in terms of lack of empathy. Empathy is innate. We learn it by watching other people do it. It’s a core survival mechanism for humanity because we’re social beings.

    You can teach someone who lacks empathy actions to take that approximate empathy, for example, you can teach someone to answer when ask “How are you?” to say “Fine.” For someone who lacks empathy, that is extremely difficult to do. They will never feel that it’s right. So there is no way in hell that anybody is learning empathy in school, or we would have solved these two disorders.

    2. The popular kids in school are ESFJs and ESFPs. These people are incredibly focused on other people. They care more than any other personality type whether they are liked, whether they are helping other people to have fun, and whether other people are being cared about. Of course these are the most popular kids; they were born to be popular. Of the 16 personality types, very few care care a LOT about being popular. So, of course, very few types are popular. But when the research says the popular kids are the nice kids, what they mean is the popular kids care more than anybody else about being nice. This rules out the valedictorian. This rules out the track star. This rules out all the intellectuals. This rules out all of the out-of-the-box thinkers. They simply can’t compete on nice with the kids who are singularly focused on being nice.

    I have a kid with Aspergers and I have Aspergers. And I also have a kid who is an ESFP. He is absolutely the most popular kid in every single room he’s in, no matter where he is, because that’s pretty much all he cares about.

    I’m actually driving in the car right now, dictating this to my friend Melissa by phone, and my son pipes up from the backseat: “That’s true, all I care about is making people happy.”


    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Maybe you are defining “popular” differently. There are the kids who are perceived as “popular” as in being part of the most sought after group or clique. And there are the kids who are well liked by pretty much everyone and who may or may not be part of those groups. I just remember a very strong sort of caste system and not much empathy from anyone other than my close friends.

      Maybe kids become popular because of being like your son and then they attract a group of kids who may or may not have equal levels of empathy themselves. So you have these nice kids who are good with people and relationships and making others happy and they end up in the middle of a group of kids who are not so much. Maybe those are the kids we are all thinking of when you say that the popular kids are the nice kids.

      Maybe a lot of the politics of popularity and the various groups and their hierarchies weren’t on your radar because you have Aspergers? My daughter has NLD which is very similar to Aspergers in the social realm and while I don’t see a lot of empathy I also don’t see much need to be mean or hurtful. She doesn’t care about hierarchies or being possessive of friends. I see it among her friends, most of whom are hsed, that need to control a friend’s access to other friends. They revolve around certain kids (like your son) but she seems pretty oblivious most of the time. She likes being with them but she doesn’t seem to care that much who she is playing with or if she is in charge or not.

      • channa
        channa says:

        Pretty sure the chapter in Nurture Shock on bullying cited the research you are looking for. The kids at the top of the hierarchy are kinder – the insecure kids jockeying for status do the bullying. At least that’s what I remember – from the book and from school as well.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          It has been three years since I read Nurtureshock. Eye opening book. I just cross referenced it with empathy and came up with the following. I can’t vouch for the veracity, but the woman had just listened to it and this was her summation. And personally, it jives with much of what I have seen.
          “As an example of the second, take empathy. Parents want their children to learn to be gracious, kind and empathetic in dealing with other children. They want their children to develop positive social skills because they assume that will protect them from being cruel or manipulative. But researchers found that often kindness and cruelty were developed equally well at the same time by the most socially successful students. These kids would alternate between kindness and cruelty to get what they wanted, and were very good at it. So parents of popular children need to be on guard against the more negative aspects of popularity”

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      I agree with the some of the others, this post and line of reasoning is not making sense.

      How can empathy be innate AND learned by watching/modeling others? If it is through watching others, then school would be a great place to teach/learn it. I agree with you, it isn’t. You have had various posts regarding nature trumping nurture across the board. Stating that “But empathy is, in fact, simply a result of decent parenting very early in life for neurotypical kids, because they are hard-wired to learn empathy just by watching the reaction of adults.” If it is truly innate, then modeling isn’t necessary. It would spontaneously originate with all NTs. It absolutely doesn’t. Ability to read social cues, however can be a large product of wiring. Autism is a spectrum. It is not all or nothing, black and white. My understanding of “no capacity for empathy” sounds more like a diagnostic criteria for a sociopath. Many sociopaths are charismatic and manipulative and popular.

      Yesterday you also did a blame the parents thing regarding juvanie delenquancy. I don’t what is going on in your life right now, maybe it is that you have had some large parenting issue that you feel the need to take responsibility for, or are rushed to crank out posts given that, naturally, your focus was on your seminar last week. I don’t know, but this closed mindedness doesn’t seem like you. Forthright and brash yes, but you really seem to enjoy the dialogue with your readership. You don’t seem willing to consider any other viewpoint or research. I hope everything is okay. If you really want to point to research (most of it outdated and contested) ‘proving’ lack of empathy, it is out there. But there is much more, newer, research disproving it. Also, how you using the seemingly contradictory arguments of a version of ‘refrigerator mother’ and innate wiring baffles me.

      You seem to be ignoring the fact that introverts often care very, very deeply about people and their needs. Often to the detriment of themselves. i think Mother Teresa was an INFP. She gave everything she had to others. That isn’t feasible for everyone. Introverts have to conserve their energy or they will be of no use to anyone.The extroverted types that you mention care about appearances. Naturally that colors how one manifests one’s empathy. Caring that everyone is having fun at a party seems more superficial than understanding why someone would make a different, equally valid choice. Empathy is about understanding other people, wanting to make them happy can be a part of it, but it is by no means the whole picture.

      As I said before, it is a numbers game. You state that ‘thinking outside the box” precludes being popular. I tend to agree. But how can someone who can’t think outside the box actually empathize with someone who has a radically different history? My mother is a popular ESFJ. She has a great deal of sympathy for people she can identify with. But she really, really sucks at understanding, or even trying to understand things that challenge her belief system. She does care deeply what other people think and how she looks to others and thinks that other people should too. That if they did they would ‘fit in’ and be happy. That isn’t the recipe for happiness across the board. I have read that George W Bush is an ESFJ. Not exactly the poster child for empathy.

      My Aspie husband has lifelong friends and is highly regarded a ‘good guy.’ However, he makes some jaw-dropping social blunders by not realizing how someone else might interpret something. He is devastated when it is pointed out to him. Truly crest-fallen. I assume you have read “look me in the eye”

      ugh, I have to get back to my regularly scheduled life and will continue later, if I have the energy and haven’t been blocked

    • MC
      MC says:

      “Empathy cannot be taught. There is a well-established list of mental disorders around inability to feel empathy.”

      This is really a non sequitur. That’s like saying that calligraphy can’t be taught because some people have arthritis.

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    I always thought that Aspergers limits the ability to read social cues and therefore trigger feelings of empathy, but not that empathy is lacking. The reading of social clues can be learned to some degree, and if this is achieved, Aspergers kids (and adults) can very well feel and express empathy because the connection between outward cue and inward feeling is made. Social clues also have to be relearned to some extent when moving from one country to another – the american casual ” how are you?” does not require an honest and elaborate answer since it takes the place of “hello”. However, this question in a different place is a sign of “i would really like to know how you are feeling” – and thus a signature of empathy.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Yes, that is a good qualifier. I see that with my daughter. She doesn’t read the cues but when you point them out she will understand the emotion. She understands what feelings are and what anger or sadness or happiness feel like. She believes me when I say that what she said caused someone to feel that way, but she still doesn’t really get the why. Why should that make someone sad? That is crazy. A lot of that has to be learned by rote. Then we have the challenge of generalizing one situation to another. So if she says something in one situation that is inappropriate it does not always translate to being inappropriate in another setting. That was a huge problem in kindergarten.

  8. karelys
    karelys says:

    I haven’t read through all the comment and I am in a hurry. But one thing I see often is that in movies (mainly) and just our culture in general the underdog gets vindicated later in life. And we take this and then want to make it the norm.

    There are a lot of reasons why kids don’t fit in. But not fitting in and expecting kids to become the ones that form multimillion dollar companies is like expecting that everyone that is in a terrible accident is going to recover and make the best of it then go on and play in the olympic games people in wheel chairs.

    The truth is, we hear about these stories in the media. But in reality more people take their lives or go on to be bitter and angry and mean because their life was robbed by that horrible accident.

    Even those that recover tend to have some sort of impediment in their lives (not an accident but my mom has back problems from the epidural).

    In the same way, I think, kids who don’t fit in do not tend to normally become inventors and millionaires. If they do become that then it’s probably the one thing that made them not fit in anyway. Not fitting in crushes people confidence. Not having people around you to pat you in the back and making you feel like you belong can be like living without a mirror; you don’t know what you look like and what you are like. And since people seem to agree that you are not likeable (specially in those formative years) then you end up believing you are not likeable.

    College can be really hard. Starting a company is so hard. Marriage is hard. Having kids and a successful relationship is hard.

    We need people to affirm us in life to tackle these dreams that inevitably are going to get hard and if you never fit in and everyone dissed you as a child/teenager then the message that you are no good (therefore unable to succeed in life) really seeps in.

    Yes, some popular kids are mean. But the truth is that most people who are popular are so because they are nice and people like them. Being popular has become shorthand for mean girl. Also, cheerleader/jock. Just like being smart/straight A student can be shorthand for loner/geeky.

    But that is not the case.

  9. Nonnie
    Nonnie says:

    That’s strange. I think I’ve developed most of my empathy in my 20s. Before that I was certainly nice, because I wanted to be a nice person and I knew how nice people should act. But I wasn’t really motivated by a sense of caring for others’ well-being till after college. Maybe we are working with different definitions of empathy.

  10. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    People really need to get over what happened in high school!

    Media representation of high school exaggerates the cheerleader/jock stereotypes and eventually people are convinced it was like that for them too.

    Whatever strange societies exist in high school is just another reason to home school. It exists in that particular vacuum and is not the real world.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      yes, it seems that lots of people are judging how the caste system in high school affected them. It’s strange that people continue to make generalizations from personal anecdote. It’s really easy to realize that just because it happened a certain way for it doesn’t disqualify statistics from being valid and reliable.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The first link in this post is a five-page article in New York magazine about why people are biologically unable to get over what happened in high school.

      The article talks about research about brain development and how we end up seeing ourselves the way people see us in high school. That view of ourselves remains throughout life. It’s an interesting article and the conclusion is that high school is torture.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I thought it is more like the way we see our ourselves during these brain development stages in adolescence – they coincide with high school typically due to the timeline. However, if a kid is homeschooled there should be a strong link as to how it experiences the position within the family. If this is a good positive reinforcement this will stick, if the family does not provide this positive feedback – the self perception would also be a poor one, right?

  11. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    Penelope, people are disagreeing with this post because when you say ‘popular’, most people take it to mean ‘top of the dominance hierarchy’. Whereas when say ‘popular’, you mean ‘most well liked’. Very different things.

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      I have to agree that Penelope seems not to understand what ‘popular’ means in terms of school cliques. It does not mean ‘most liked’. It definitely does not mean ‘nicest’ or ‘most focussed on making people happy’. The popular kids were mean, especially if you weren’t one of them.

  12. Alison
    Alison says:

    It is slightly amusing to read how fervently some of your readers disagree with you. I am asking myself why it seems so abhorrent to them that what you say might be true. You are absolutely correct about the two core assumptions in your blog. I suppose this tangles with their core assumptions that it ought not be this way. It seems better to me to accept how things are and figure a way to work with it than spend endless amounts of energy wishing things were different.

  13. Julie
    Julie says:

    I expect that there are a lot of issues going on here with regard to why the commenters are responding in the ways that they are. For one thing, Penelope has pretty advanced confirmation bias syndrome and tends to link to the one thing that agrees with her and then assert that because of this one link she is definitely right. There really isn’t a logical connection between whether we can teach empathy to normal kids and the fact that some minority of the population can’t feel empathy in the same way that normal people do. It is actually quite a bit like saying that we can’t teach physical skills to people because some people have physical disabilities. Even the fact that so few of us will ever be Michael Phelps does not mean that we can’t learn to swim, even learn to swim pretty well.

    There’s actually quite a lot of research on teaching empathy that Penelope does not link to. Most of it that I am familiar with suggests that most teaching of empathy and its related behaviors occurs unconsciously. Some kids are naturally much more empathetic than others, but other kids can learn, and even kids who are naturally inclined to empathy gain from having strong parental attachments, supportive environments where their feelings and thoughts matter, and parents who model empathy. Those things are usually not overt “teaching” but they are certainly part of learning.

    As far as the issues with popular kids being nice, I suspect the conflict here is what one commenter already identified. Most of the popular clique kids were not, in my experience, all that well liked, and the genuinely well liked kids were not typically in one of the “popular” cliques. (I think I was actually one of those types, though, even though I am not empathetic or nice at all–what I am is very funny and adventurous, so people like hanging around me, I guess). So, yeah, most of the jocks or cheerleaders or whatever were popular but not very nice, but if you think back to high school, there were probably a few kids who were really well liked by most everyone, and I think those are the people Penelope means.

    The NYMag story she links is telling. It relies on one or two actual scientific studies, and a lot of speculation from psychologists that amount to a collection of anecdotes. And then it goes on to say that the most popular people in high school are the most aggressive, which I assume is not what Penelope means when she says the most popular people are the nicest.

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