Popular Boys Show Their Tough Side

In the grueling social world of grade school, there’s a flip side to a boy’s popularity, a new study finds.

Tough boys can be popular, too. Tony Stone/Zigy Kalusny

A small but influential contingent of boys in fourth to sixth grade attains popularity through a flair for physical intimidation, manipulating others, and disrupting classroom activities, say psychologist Philip C.

Rodkin of Duke University in Durham, N.C., and his coworkers. Although not particularly well-liked by a majority of their peers, these boys—dubbed “tough boys” by the researchers—command their own cliques and sit high on the junior social ladder.

“Model boys” take a contrasting route to popularity, Rodkin’s group reports. These youngsters get along with others, do well in school and sports, and display leadership while respecting adult authority.

“Tough boys can be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms,” Rodkin says. “They greatly influence the behavior of unpopular, aggressive boys and classroom discipline in general.”

Long-term studies of tough boys have yet to be conducted. Some of these boys probably encounter many job and family difficulties as adults, Rodkin suggests; others may channel their aggression into leadership positions in areas such as business and politics.

The researchers examined 452 boys in fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. Youngsters came from 59 classrooms in inner-city, suburban, and rural areas. They took part in a larger study of the integration of students with mild learning disabilities into public school classrooms. Popularity represented a mix of factors including likability, “coolness,” and influence over others.

In surveys and interviews, the boys’ teachers and classmates, as well the boys themselves, closely agreed on the identity of popular boys, the scientists report in the January Developmental Psychology.

Model boys accounted for about two-thirds of the popular boys; tough boys made up the rest. Both types of popular boys exhibited a rate of learning disabilities similar to their classmates’.

The popularity pattern held for African-American boys in all-black classes and white boys in predominantly white classes. However, popular African-American boys in mostly white classes usually fell into the tough category. That tendency may reflect social influences, such as an unwillingness of many black males to adopt what they see as central values of the white culture, Rodkin suggests.

In a separate analysis of 496 girls from the same classrooms, the researchers found that model behavior characterized almost all those who were popular. The highly aggressive girls who attained popularity were too few to stand out as a statistically cohesive group, Rodkin says.

Earlier studies found that some grade-schoolers have a circle of friends despite being generally disliked. Rodkin’s group makes “an interesting argument” that such kids may become popular, remarks psychologist Kenneth Rubin of the University of Maryland, College Park.

However, the new study may overestimate the popularity of tough boys outside their limited social circle, Rubin holds. For instance, it doesn’t indicate whether female classmates admired or disliked tough boys.

The findings for African-American boys in this study may not apply to all black youth, Rubin adds.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.