MONEY Shopping

Parents Worry More About Back-to-School Shopping Than Bullying

Back to School shopping
Rob Bennett—The New York Times

Students themselves, meanwhile, are most stressed about having to wake up early for school in a few weeks.

The back-to-school prep period is a particularly stressful time of year for parents and children alike. According to a survey that was commissioned by the coupon site ebates and is being released this week, nearly all of the adults and teens polled said that the start of the school year was stressing them out in one or more ways.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the teenagers surveyed overwhelmingly said that they were most concerned that school would mess up the leisurely (lack of) schedule that they’re enjoying over the summer. The top two named sources of stress for teens were “Waking up early to get to class” (cited by 69% of those polled) and “Getting too much homework” (64%). Rounding out the top five were “Not liking my teachers” (42%), “Not having the right clothes” (32%), and “Not fitting in” (31%).

The top back-to-school stress point for adults, on the other hand, was “Shopping for clothes and school items,” cited by 56% of those surveyed. The stress of shopping outranked hectic student schedules (50%), helping with homework (38%), bullying at school (31%), and bad teachers (29%).

At first glance, the results indicate that students and parents alike seem to be saying that shopping and having the right clothes are of higher importance than potentially huge problems like bullying and subpar teachers. Are most of us really that superficial?

Maybe, maybe not. A closer look at why consumers are so stressed about shopping shows that the big concern essentially comes down to money rather than pressure to be up on the latest fashion trends. According to data released last week by the National Retail Federation, “the average family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5 percent from $634.78 last year.” The typical family with a high school student is expected to spend even more, $682.99.

Given the hefty back-to-school bill parents are facing and the fact that, for example, students are now expected to arrive at school in possession of 18 items on a classroom checklist, on average, no wonder shopping is stressing so many families out right about now. More than half of parents said that their No. 1 concern about back-to-school shopping was simply not being able to afford everything they’re expected to buy.

What’s more, it must be pointed out, many of these stress points are related. Parents and kids worry about shopping and clothes at least partly because they’re concerned about bullying and fitting in at school. And bullying and bad teachers, while possibly disastrous for the student experience, are far less common, one hopes, than the problem that seemingly every middle-class family budget confronts: affording all the stuff our kids want and/or that our kids’ school requires.

Nine out ten Americans in the ebates survey said that they’ll save during back-to-school shopping via coupons, discounts, and sales, among other methods. Retailers understand that consumers are primed to look for back-to-school deals at this time of year—in fact, many stores launched back-to-school offers before the last school year even ended—and virtually every Sunday circular is filled with school-related sales and deals lately. So no matter what your student needs to prepare for the fall, there’s almost no reason to pay full price.

If you’ve held off so far from making some or all of your back-to-school purchases, there’s good reason you might want to wait a little longer. No fewer than 16 states are offering sales tax holidays this summer, with the vast majority waiving sales tax on various back-to-school purchases for a few days around August 1.

TIME Israel

Israel Charges Palestinian Teen’s Alleged Killers

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has charged three Jews with the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager whose death set off days of violent protests in Arab areas of Jerusalem and northern Israel.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says the three appeared before a court on Monday. He says the suspects admitted to abducting 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir and setting him on fire. Rosenfeld says they also re-enacted the murder.

Abu Khdeir was taken on July 2 near his home in east Jerusalem and his charred body was later found in a forest.

Israel’s Shin Bet security service says the suspects, whose names were not released, were motivated by revenge after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers.

Police are investigating three others for involvement in the killing. They remain under house arrest.

TIME Parenting

Kids Value Success Over Caring Because Parents Do

The co-author of a new Harvard study reveals what parents can do to increase their children’s caring quotient

Last month a team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued a study—based on a survey of 10,000 middle and high school students—which showed that teenagers value achievement more than caring, in large part because they think their parents do. The authors described a “rhetoric/reality gap” in which parents and teachers say they prioritize caring, but kids are hearing something different.

The study drew quite a lot of attention—most of it focused on this key finding: Eighty percent of the students chose high achievement or happiness as their top priority. Only 20% picked caring for others.

I recently circled back to co-author Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist, co-director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project and a father of three, to explore what parents can do to increase their children’s caring quotient.

1. Given economic realities today, it seems understandable that parents are focused on their children’s success. And yet the underlying premise of your study is that focusing on success is a problem. Why is that?

We are not making the case that achievement and success are not important. It is “Success at what cost?” that we are concerned about. We are seeing a rise in depression, anxiety and drug use in kids, especially in affluent communities. And a big factor is the pressure to achieve.

These kids are strung out. We’re also troubled that achievement comes at the cost of caring for others. In life we always have to balance our concern for others with our concern for ourselves. If you are playing basketball, you have to pass the ball. If you are studying for a test, it is important at times to help a classmate. But we are moving too far in the direction of self-interest.

2. You and your colleagues have created a guide to help parents raise “ethical caring kids,” Your first suggestion is to “make caring a priority.” How would you advise parents to do this?

It begins early in kids’ lives. When you’re at the playground, it means tuning into other kids and encouraging your kid to do the same—to reach out to a child who doesn’t have anyone to play with, for example. Ask your kids to write thank you notes; require them to be respectful to you and other adults; don’t let them fudge their community service; make them honor their commitments (if they’ve RSVPed yes to a party, make them go even if something more preferable comes along). It is the quiet, subtle, daily, steady stream of messages that parents give their kids that matter.

3. You say parents should “provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude.” Can you explain?

Kids should pitch in as a part of everyday life and not expect to be rewarded. This means they should set or clear the table, do the dishes, pick up their clothes, take the garbage out. Save the rewards for uncommon acts of kindness, like helping a few neighbors dig their car out from the snow. Caring is like playing an instrument or a sport; you have to practice it all the time. That’s how it becomes deep in your bones—it’s how it becomes a part of who you are.

4. Kids naturally care about their family and friends, but you say parents need to expand “children’s circle of concern.” How do we do that?

It is harder for kids to care for people who are different from them: Boys may not care about girls. Privileged kids may not care about kids who are struggling. Kids may not care about people with disabilities. Teaching them to care for those who are vulnerable or marginalized is important in and of itself, and it also is the basis of justice. There are always opportunities to talk because these issues come up all the time—it’s about what’s on your radar. It’s not letting your kid treat the bus driver, or custodian or waitress as if they are invisible. It is the way in which you steer a conversation about the new kid at school, or point out an unkind act you witness on TV. It’s just noticing and having the conversation day to day.

5. You suggest that mom and dad each “be a strong moral role model and mentor,” for their children because kids learn by watching the actions of adults they respect. Can you elaborate?

One of the big pathways for kids to become moral people is that they want to be like their parents. Parents have to live these values—they can’t just espouse them. Teens especially have razor-sharp antenna toward hypocrisy; they are attuned to when we are not doing what we say. You have to be appreciative of the bus driver and the waitress. You have to help a neighbor. You have to not tell “white lies” a lot. And you need to listen to your kids and connect your beliefs and values to their moral questions. You also have to be willing to learn from them. Sometimes they are going to have a more mature moral understanding than you do. As parents we need to be able to admit our mistakes and talk about them. The goal is not to demonstrate that you are perfect. The goal is to demonstrate that you are an imperfect human being who is committed to becoming better.

6. Your final suggestion is that parents need to “guide children in managing destructive feelings.” What do you mean by that?

When parents around the country are asked how they help develop their kid’s morality, they usually talk about teaching kids right from wrong and core values. But the reality is that by the time kids are 5 or 6 years old, they usually know the values and have a general sense of right and wrong. The problem is that they sometimes have trouble managing their behavior when they feel angry or envious or ashamed or inferior or helpless. That’s what causes them to violate others. The key is to give kids a range of strategies to help them manage these difficult feelings—from teaching them to take a deep breath or a time out to learning how to ask for help from a trusted adult.

7. You and your colleague reported that 96% of parents from earlier studies say that developing moral character in children is “very important, if not essential,” but that 80% of the teenagers you surveyed said parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Besides role modeling the right behaviors, what can parents do to make sure their kids are getting the message they mean to be sending?

Parents often tell kids, “The only thing that matters to me is that you are happy.” They are not saying, “The only thing that matters to me is that you are kind.” Changing course is about changing the steady stream of messages—verbal and otherwise—that parents are sending their kids. The truth is, our children’s moral development is much more under our control than their happiness.

8. The irony about your study is that although happiness is rated as more important than caring, most experts agree that caring leads to happiness. So should kids be more caring because it will make them happier?

I don’t think we should tell kids to be caring because it is going to make them happy. I think we should tell them to be caring because it is the right thing to do. But I also think that caring is going to make them happier in the long run, because when you are more empathetic, you have better relationships. And it is really deep relationships with people who you appreciate and who appreciate you that are perhaps our most important source of happiness in life.

I should also note that in our study,caring was ranked second by a high percentage of teens. Almost all kids say that caring is important to them. But it gets sidelined with all this pressure to achieve. It is evident that kids—and their parents—value caring. It just needs to be drawn out more. It needs to be prioritized. That is the encouraging part of this.

TIME Japan

Japanese City Urges ‘Smartphone Curfew’ on Teens

Teenagers in Kasuga are facing lonely nights after education authorities advised a nightly ban on smartphones between 10pm and 6am

The education board of a Japanese city has said junior high school pupils should stop using their phones after 10pm, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In the city of Kasuga, education authorities have encouraged students to surrender their phones to adults between 10pm and 6am Though the board has support from local schools, there are no penalties in place for those who disobey.

A survey conducted by the Japanese cabinet office in November and December of last year found that over half of students aged 13-15 owned a cell phone.

Of the 52% that did, nearly half owned a smartphone. This is a staggering leap from 2010 when only 2.6% of those with cell phones had smartphones.

The Japanese government has voiced concerns about excessive internet use amongst children. Their website warns of the risks of such use, citing cyberbullying, leaks of private information and use of pay sites as possible examples.

This latest campaign by authorities in Kasuga came after discussions with parent-teacher associations concerned about smartphone use amongst teens.

Posters and leaflets have been sent to the city’s six junior high schools asking them to observe the ban.

Kasuga’s campaign follows the city of Kariya who started a similar campaign, with a curfew of 9 p.m., in April.

[WSJ]

TIME Israel

Israel Mourns 3 Teenagers Found Dead in West Bank

Israeli leaders have accused the militant group Hamas of their murders

Israel held funeral services Tuesday for three teenagers found dead in the West Bank on Monday. Tens of thousands came together to mourn the boys, who were the focus of a two-week search.

Israeli leaders have accused Hamas of abducting and killing the three teenagers, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship.

Blue-and-white Israeli flags covered each of the young men’s bodies. “We are burying a child today, a child who could have been the child of any one of us,” said Yair Lapid, the Israeli Minister of Finance. “Therefore he is indeed the child of each and every one of us.”

 

TIME Israel

Officials: Israel Finds Bodies of Kidnapped Teens

Israeli army and police by armoured vehicles in the West Bank village of Halhoul, north of Hebron, June 30, 2014, where reportedly the bodies of the three Israelis teenagers, missing and presumed kidnapped since 12 June, were discovered in a cave.
Israeli army and police by armoured vehicles in the West Bank village of Halhoul, north of Hebron, June 30, 2014, where reportedly the bodies of the three Israelis teenagers, missing and presumed kidnapped since 12 June, were discovered in a cave. Jim Hollander—EPA

(JERUSALEM) — Security officials say the Israeli military has discovered the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped in the West Bank earlier this month.

They say the bodies were found Monday near the village of Halhul, near the location where the teens disappeared on June 12.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for releasing the information ahead of a formal announcement.

The search for the teens has become a national obsession, setting off a frantic manhunt and large crackdown on the Hamas militant group.

TIME Social Networking

Meet the Brothers Behind the Web’s Most Controversial Social Network

Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014.
Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014. Rafal Milach for TIME

In their first extensive interview, Ask.fm's co-founders talk about the deaths of teenagers who used their site and what they are doing to keep the anonymous social network safe

Ask.fm is one of the Internet’s biggest social networks. It also happens to be one of the least understood. Since its founding in 2010, the site has grown to 120 million registered users around the world, with 15 million in the United States alone. But it is best known for unflattering attention. Its critics call it an incubator for cyberbullying and even suicide.

In this week’s magazine, I wrote about Ask.fm’s founders and the rise of anonymous, mobile-optimized social networking, an innovation that has within the last five years overturned the life of the average American teenager. As part of the reporting for that story, I visited brothers and Ask.fm cofounders Ilja and Mark Terebin in their home city of Riga, Latvia for their first-ever extensive interview. Over the two days we spent together in late April, the brothers talked about life, their business, and their responsibility for the adolescent and teen suicides for which the site is especially well known in Europe.

The site is especially popular with teenagers: 42% of its users are under the age of 17. On the site, you can anonymously ask questions of registered users, shrouding your own identity in hopes of getting the most honest answer with the least judgment. There, millions congregate trading mostly harmless gossip. But on some pages, the site teems with vitriol, as teenagers anonymously harass and insult their classmates and neighbors. Since 2012, press reports have described Ask.fm as a factor in at least 16 adolescent deaths.

In in their interview with TIME, the Terebin brothers pushed back against critics who say their site is dangerous for kids. “I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm,” Ilja said. Instead he blames society. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”

“The media takes this story and bullies us,” Ilja says.

The brothers, who are surrounded by a small handful of young executives, run their 58-employee company together. Ilja, 35, is the CEO. Mark, 29, is executive board member and co-founder. They share an office—and most everything else, really. (They both dress like French film students; they both turned vegetarian after watching a documentary together.) It’s been this way since their childhood in Jelgava, a small city 25 miles southwest of Riga. There the boys, their parents, and their grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment, typical, they say, of the austere Soviet days. Midway through Mark and Ilja’s formative years, the family relocated, with elation, to a two-bedroom apartment. And a clunky PC powered by a Pentium 120 did eventually make its way into their home. But the Terebins weren’t young techies. They were entrepreneurs.

Ask.fm offices in Riga, Latvia. Rafal Milach for TIME

 

Here’s our interview with the Terebins. It has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.

So how’d you wind up starting Ask.fm?

Ilja: Mark was spending all his time on the Internet. I can’t say the same about myself. When we started Ask.fm, I hadn’t even used a social network. But I was in about it, because it’s the present, and of course the future.

Mark: I’m not a tech guy at all. But in Bulgaria, when the [real-estate] crisis was beginning, we were thinking what’s next? And we thought the Internet was something we could participate in. We didn’t know how to code, but we knew we could find people who think like us.

Ilja: It’s not necessary to be a cook to like food, you know?

Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?

Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.

What do you make of people who say the site should be shut down?

Ilja: This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools. The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between bullying that ends at the end of the school day and bullying that goes on whenever?

Ilja: So what do you want to do? Close down the Internet? The bullying would still happen. Why would you think the bullying would stop? And people say anonymity is a problem. But don’t forget about the people who need anonymity. Teenagers, especially, are afraid that their opinions will be judged by others. It’s sometimes important that they can ask questions anonymously. So don’t forget about these people as well. They need it.

Mark: Our audience values anonymity a lot.

When you see coverage that says the site contributes to the problem, how do you react?

Ilja: We’re doing our job. We’re making the system more and more safe for the user. We can be unhappy about many things that are written in the press; we disagree with many of them. But for the last year, it’s been our priority No. 1, the thing we’ve spent the most time on. We take it very seriously, safety. But we understand that there will still be problems with Ask.fm or any other social network. The media will always make a lot of noise about it. Very often the things that are written are not really fair or not really true. It’s written that there’s no report button—it’s been there since day one. There’s always been the possibility to switch off anonymity, to block an abusive user.

Do you get tired of what people are writing about Ask.fm?

Ilja: A little tired, of course. They bully Ask.fm. For example, the Malta case. Did anyone read the profile of this girl Ask.fm supposedly killed? There was no bullying on the profile—there was no bullying at all. But the media takes this story and bullies us. We’re an easy target. I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm. The Hannah Smith case, the Izzy Dix case—we gave the inquests all the logs, all the information. And we were not found responsible in either case. Sometimes people just want attention. Some people don’t have enough people caring about them, and so they scream for help. Please help me. People don’t realize, this is good for parents and teachers. When you read the profile of your child or your student, you can find out information that you don’t know. If you take the site down, the child would still be bullied, and no one would be able to know.

You seem to think it’s a societal problem.

Ilja: It is. We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.

What would you want to say to parents whose kids have killed themselves?

Ilja: There’s nothing we can say to them; it’s too late to bring their children back. But we cooperate with the police on a regular basis. Do the Internet, cellphones and social media make it easier to bully people? Yes. But the problem is not where it happens. It’s about the people who make it happen.

Do you worry about your reputation?

Ilja: The bad PR has hurt us a little bit. But a lot of it isn’t true. They say we’re like Russian playboys, buying sportscars and yachts. That we’re millionaires. It’s all bullsh-t.

When you have the Prime Minister of England saying something needs to be done about your website, that must make you feel strange.

Ilja: It’s not strange. We understand why it happened. People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?

Do you wish you had thought about safety more in the early days of the site?

Ilja: This is not a good way of thinking, I-wish-I-had. You should think about the present, not about the past.

So what is the present like?

Ilja: We have many people who enjoy our product. And we do a good job for them. We help them discover themselves—not others, but themselves. I think it’s very, very important.

Are you sure you’re having that impact?

Ilja: It’s Eastern philosophy. The human being has everything inside him. But he should discover himself. Ask.fm helps young people to discover themselves. They will become more open-minded, they will have more freedom in the future. It’s very, very important for the present society. Everything society is trying to do right now is put the person in the box. And this is also the reason society is so much against Ask.fm. Because Ask.fm helps people put their heads out of the box. Young users especially. Older people, they’re f-cked up already. They’re interested only in silly things. Who will be the next president of Russia? Who will be the next president of the U.S.? The discussion is a waste of time. And their opinion doesn’t matter at all. It will happen without them. And it will not change their lives. Most things people spend their time thinking about are like this.

When did you develop this philosophical notion about what the site was?

Ilja: Not from Day One. It came step by step.

Mark: When you see how people interact on the site, you see how they start discovering themselves. Even us. Sometimes you get questions you have never asked yourself before, and you start thinking about these things. You enjoy life more than when you’re watching TV or movies or reading magazines.

But aren’t websites part of the intellectual narrowing you’re talking about?

Ilja: Yes, but not Ask.fm! It’s a very important thing to go deeper inside yourself. Everything around you doesn’t make you think. Most of what’s around you is created to keep you from thinking. Eat chips, buy beer, and watch football! But when you answer a question, you have to think. You have to bring your own thoughts about a topic, not just share something someone else wrote, or a video from YouTube that someone else created. You create your own thoughts about important things. Like, “When was the last time you smiled?” That’s an important thing. It’s way more important than, When will the next iPhone come out? This is crap. That’s a very stupid thing to think about, when the next version of some computer or telephone will come out.

Let’s go back to the beginning, how’d you decide on the concept?

Ilja: There was this website, Formspring. The idea, uh, it was their idea. We just liked the idea. We thought we could do it even better.

Mark: It’s not only because there were a lot of users there. We liked the concept of asking questions. This is how you explore the world.

Did you have a sense of how you were going to grow the site?

Ilja: At the beginning, because we had so little experience, we didn’t think about many things you need to think about before you start an Internet company. But that also makes it easier to start. We had some ideas about what to do.

How much did you guys put into the company?

Ilja: Me, Mark, and our cofounder Oskars Liepins, we put in around half a million dollars. That was all we put in for the first year and a half. Then Rubylight, an investment firm, came in, and invested an amount I cannot disclose. And they helped us with technology, too.

As a business, how are you doing?

Ilja: We became profitable a couple months after Rubylight’s investment, two years after we started. That’s pretty fast when you compare with U.S. companies. But they’re in a different situation–they know that there are funds that will give them money. For us, it was more difficult. There’s not a lot of venture capital coming to Latvia. But we did some valuation with experts, and the company’s worth more than a hundred million dollars.

What do you make of the big valuations for American companies and the market conditions that allow Snapchat to turn down $3 billion from Facebook?

Ilja: The market’s overrated. Of course it’s good for us. But social media has not proven its success yet as a business. It’s too early.

What do you anticipate happening in the sector?

Ilja: There won’t be one all-encompassing social network, like Google is in search. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ask.fm, we’ll all have places for different types of communication.

How have your lives changed since you started Ask.fm?

Ilja: Not a whole lot. It’s not like we woke up one day and had money; the process is very slow. We didn’t invent an application or anything.

Mark: Yes, It’s not like we created Flappy Bird.

But you do have more money, right? What do you spend it on?

Ilja: Vegetables, fruits. I have a nice apartment, too. The rent is about $2,500 a month.

Mark: I travel more than I used to. I went to Thailand, I go to the U.S. occasionally. It’s nice to escape yourself.

MONEY Kids and Money

WATCH: Tips from the Pros: Best Money Advice for Teenagers

Financial planner Allan Katz talks about the most important financial habit a teenager can develop

TIME Dating

Here Are the 10 Best Prom-posals of Prom Season

Because a text message that says "yo, prom?" just doesn't cut it anymore

It’s the first week of May, which means it’s time for allergies, Cinco de Mayo sombreros, and elaborate romantic gestures by barely post-pubescent teenagers! That’s right, it’s prom-posal season, the most awkward time of the year.

If you don’t know already, prom-posals are when high schoolers ask each other to prom with the level of pomp and circumstance that rivals an actual engagement. Some high schools are gripped by prom-posal hysteria and some aren’t. For those who have found their high schools littered with rose petals and graffiti this week, you’re not alone.

Of course, kids have been asking each other out in elaborate ways ever since the romantic comedies of the ’80s and ’90s gave us all unrealistic expectations of prom (thank you, She’s All That.) The first official prom-posal of recorded history occurred in 2001, or at least that’s the first one to make the papers, but over-the-top prom-posals have become even more frequent in the age of social media. Because what’s the point of asking someone out if you can’t post pictures of it?

Here are the 10 best prom-posals of the internet, courtesy of the @ThePromposal Twitter feed.

The History Buff One:

The One from the Knight and His Noble Steed:

The Worst Pun One:

The One for Someone Who Loves Frozen:

The One that Kills Two Birds With One Stone:

The One That Says “Booty” Too Much:

The One That Was Delivered by Hedwig:

The Wishful Thinking One:

The One That Put Chicken Nuggets on a Car:

The Filthy Truck One:

Because nothing says ‘love’ like a dirt-encrusted truck.

TIME Books

How to Be Popular Without Being Mean: The Method That Got a Girl a Book Deal

Popular
Dutton Children's

And a movie deal too!

Maya Van Wagenen made news last fall when DreamWorks optioned her memoir — a big achievement for anyone, but more so for Van Wagenen, who turns 16 in June. Her book, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (out April 15 from Dutton Children’s Books), tells the tale of her eighth grade year, during which she decided to follow advice from a 1950s popularity guide by teen model Betty Cornell and see where it got her.

Not all of the advice is the kind of stuff you’d expect to help a modern middle schooler — Van Wagenen had to wear long skirts to school, following the book’s advice, and the only eye makeup she was permitted was some Vaseline on her lids — but it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she learns some valuable lessons about social hierarchies. And her memoir becomes, like the book that inspired it, something of a teen popularity guide itself. It turns out that wearing weird clothes can actually help…as long as your definition of popularity is the same as hers, focused on having the most friends versus being at the top of the food chain. Though at first it seems that changing the definition is somehow cheating the system, Van Wagenen makes it work — and she says that adults to whom she’s spoken about the topic, from her family to her editors, tend to think that teen social systems are a lot more rigid than they are in reality.

Van Wagenen spoke to TIME about being popular, her book and advice for aspiring popular kids:

TIME: During the course of your experiment, you asked kids at your school to define “popular.” Did you ever come up with a final definition?

VAN WAGENEN: My definition of popularity changed throughout the experiment. At the beginning I was looking at the exclusive hierarchy at our school that guided everybody’s actions. It grew from that feeling of exclusion. But I was able to find a different definition that was more about being kind of people and reaching out and focusing on including everybody and being a friend to everyone, rather than the select few.

Can those two definitions exist at the same school?

I think the true definition of popularity is the inclusion. And I think when people are sometimes at the top of the school and considered very respected for their place on the social ladder, they tend to feel — well, from the experiment I did where I asked people if they considered themselves popular, the people at the top whom everybody else considered to be the most popular said they didn’t, so I think that comes through as the price of exclusion.

What about you? Do you consider yourself popular?

I’m much more able to make friends and more confident in myself, and I’m definitely pretty well known because of the book thing. That’s been interesting.

What do you think will happen when the book comes out?

For the most part I think the attention on me will die down and I’ll get to be normal again.

How do you balance being yourself and including everyone against Betty Cornell’s advice about more superficial stuff, like what to wear and how to eat?

When I did the experiment, doing the superficial things was really hard for me, because I’d never worn makeup before and I had to wear a certain type of clothing that set me apart. I bought a girdle! There were a lot of things that were very new and very scary for me. As I did each new thing, I was able to grow a little bit in my confidence. I would see someone sitting alone and because I’d gained enough confidence through putting myself in awkward situations I was able to say, you know what, I can do that.

Was there any Betty Cornell advice you disagreed with?

There were definitely things that didn’t work. The girdle, for example. But it made for some funny stories.

You write about the idea that being popular means “you have to be a ‘bitch’ to everyone except your ‘friends.’” You end up proving otherwise, but it’s a pretty common idea. Where do you think it comes from?

I think a lot of it has to do with the age group. In middle school everybody’s really struggling to find out who they are, trying to figure out where they stand and what kind of person they want to become, and so I think that’s kind of scary and they figure that they have to be intimidating to others as a way to gain respect. While I think the bully approach tends to make people scared of them, it’s not true respect and true friends.

What advice would you give an aspiring popular kid?

I would definitely say to smile. Smile at people and introduce yourself to one new person and remember their name. If you do that to one or two people a week you start to grow your friends.

Is being popular always a good thing?

It depends how you define it. With the definition I found, it’s always a good thing.

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