"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
December 10, 2012
I Love Spicy Chicken
by Melissa Howell

I should have known something bigger was lurking beneath the surface of my 4th grader’s meltdown.

It was a peaceful weekday evening; homework was wrapped up, reading was in the bag, trumpet had been practiced, kids were squeaky clean from baths/showers. We turned off all the lights and spread out beneath the Christmas tree as best we could to play a game under the magical spell of the sparkling lights.

It wasn’t long before the spell was broken, as Connor was not reacting well to coming in at the back of the pack. He began putting himself down and getting really angry. Which made me angry. For a moment.

And then I remembered a lesson I’ve learned as Connor’s mom. I don’t know why I didn’t recall it immediately; I’ve probably only been given this lesson a hundred or so times. Funny how I expect my children to learn their life lessons quickly, yet here I am nine-and-a-half years into this parenting situation and I still need lessons repeated time and again. I, too, am clearly a work in progress.

I remembered past times when Connor’s behavior gets as such, that usually it is an indicator of something deeper, and all it takes is a catalyst – sometimes a very small one – to get the ball rolling. He’s not usually one to come to me and casually throw his problems in front of me to pick through, but if I can pick up on the behavior and draw it out of him, well, then we can have some pretty intense and productive conversations.

And so we slipped into a quiet room, where he laid bare his soul before me. And it hurt us both.

“I’m not popular,” he sobbed.

This was a new word from him, “popular.” I didn’t like the sound of it. He went on to say that he thinks kids don’t like him because he rarely wins in tether ball, while another boy we’ll call “Jake” wins often, which, according to Connor, makes Jake popular.

And then he gave me a rather fascinating analogy.

"But mom," he sobbed, "It's like candy. Candy is popular because everyone likes it. Jake is like candy.”

To complete his analogy, he dug deep, searching for something that he would never want to eat. And then he found it.

“Chicken with spices all over it is not popular. I'm like spicy chicken."

Spicy chicken?

I like – no, love! – spicy chicken! I enthusiastically told him this, but he wouldn’t be swayed.

This isn’t our first struggle over tether ball this year, but he loves the game and wants to play it every recess. But he thinks he’s not popular because he usually doesn’t come out on top. Truthfully, I think it ties into his ongoing struggles to relate socially to his peers; in tetherball, he has found a way to be a part of things – whereas only a year or two ago he spent most recesses alone – and to have him made fun of for his lack of winnings is just plain cruel and painful.

After telling him I love spicy chicken, which didn’t have much impact, I told him about the year I was the captain of the junior varsity swim team. I was not a good swimmer.

“Pretty much every race I swam, I finished last,” I truthfully admitted to him.

“Did you get fired as the captain?” he retorted.

“No! I wasn’t the captain because I was a good swimmer, I was the captain because I had some leadership qualities and lots of spirit and made it fun. It had nothing to do with my ability.”

He absorbed this. I could see him picturing in his mind his teenage mother being the “loser” time and again at swim meets, although I quickly banish the word whenever he tries to use it against himself. It’s true, there are winners and losers at games and competitions and that’s just the nature of it, but coming out last doesn’t make one a loser. Try telling that to some children; there’s the rub.

But it was how he kept associating it with being “popular” or “unpopular” that really troubled me. And in since pondering on our conversation I have been reminded of how different our vantage points are.

In my younger years, it’s quite possible I would have lived off of candy, or at least tried to, if given the chance. Now, with a more mature perspective, I like a sweet treat now and then but I know it would never sustain me for long. Spicy chicken is much more nourishing and satisfying.

What is the draw to being popular? And is it the same as being well-liked? I have always thought of Connor as well-liked; his teachers tell me he is so kind and respectful to others and that the other children like him. But he doesn’t associate this with popular, and unfortunately, neither do some other students.

Do you remember the Mormonad from the early ‘80s, which depicts the Savior with a young child, and shared the words, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”? I would venture to guess that a majority of people would agree with this statement.

Now, let’s change out the word “important” for “popular” and see how it works: “It’s nice to be popular, but it’s more popular to be nice.” Aha. Entirely different sentiment, isn’t it? Do you think a majority of people would agree that this is true?

Popular things – be it people, fads, what have you – are not always popular for the right reasons. If given the chance to wave my magical matriarchal wand and pronounce a societal blessing upon my children, I would grant them, not popularity, but simply a good group of friends on whom they can rely to trust and safeguard them.

I’ve seen it as young as early elementary school, kids who are given the popular status, and subsequently the power that seems to accompany it. My daughter’s friend was hurt when the “leader” of a playground group wouldn’t allow my daughter’s friend to join in, but decided who was in and who was out… and the children allowed her to set these parameters. I was mortified to hear of it. But it went on when I was a child, when my parents were children, and now with my own children. Wouldn’t high school be an entirely different experience if you could re-do it (although you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do so), knowing what you now know about your classmates? Where did the popular ones end up? What about the lesser-known kids, the “nerds” or quieter kids? I dare say a study of my own high school class has clearly shown that nice guys certainly don’t finish last.

With the introduction of the term “popular” to our household, I am going to make a concerted effort not to use the term, but instead to continue to encourage my kids to be nice and genuine to others and not worry about their societal standings. I’m not naïve enough to think the solution is such a simple one, but I want them to be aware that popular people are not always good people and to desire things with more lasting consequences. Good luck to me, right?

And in addition, I am going to continue offering spicy chicken dishes on a regular basis. Maybe Connor will learn to love it as much as I do.

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About Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell was born and raised in the woods of northern Minnesota. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

As a single 20-something, she moved to Colorado seeking an adventure. She found one, first in landing her dream job and then in landing her dream husband; four children followed.

Upon becoming a mother, she left her career in healthcare communications to be a stay-at-home mom, and now every day is an adventure with her husband Brian and children Connor (9), Isabel (6), Lucas (5) and Mason (2).

In addition, she is a freelance writer and communications consultant for a variety of organizations.

Melissa serves as Assistant director of media relations for stake public affairs and Webelos den leader

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