Sure, You Say You Were Uncool as a Kid. But We Know the Truth.

What "cool" meant, and what it means now.
Oct. 31 2013 10:03 AM

The Cool Kids

Were you as uncool as a child as you claim? What does being “cool” mean to children, anyway?

Kid Cool
Why is it practically impossible to untangle cool from childhood?

christingasner/ iStock

Hi, guys. I was totally cool in school. Haha. Um, house party. That song about the milkshake? Ten fingers!

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

No, no, I was of course not a rock star as a child. To be cool at my sheltered private school in the D.C. suburbs entailed rolling down your plaid uniform skirt and tying your messy ponytail back with a hair ribbon. On weekends, it meant Lilly Pulitzer sheath dresses and Tiffany heart bracelets. It meant: I am rich and not too worried about it. It was the photonegative of anything resembling actual cool, and had I attained it back then I am certain I would currently hate myself.

Still, I remember standing outside during a fire drill, where the tyranny of the alphabet had stuck me in the middle of a group of cool kids whose last names also began with W. They were talking about The OC. I had never seen The OC. They thought Summer was probably the prettiest. I didn’t know who that was. “My favorite show,” I said nonchalantly, “is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” As a Buffy-esque silence—the silence of the crypt—descended, I fiddled with my skirt, which was not even correctly rolled down. “Anyone who watches Buffy is not my friend,” a girl finally announced. And I thought the thought that teenagers have thought since young Lucy picked up a stick and her peer picked up a better stick and all the other australopithici laughed: Why am I such a DORK?

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I was in middle school then, but my exposure to the idea of cool had begun years before. In sixth grade it was ’N Sync, slow dancing and slumber parties. Third grade was scented erasers and Tamagotchis. I don’t remember what it was in kindergarten but I am sure it was a huge freaking deal and my mom probably ruined my life by dressing me in boy’s overalls and forcing me to watch Wishbone instead of buying it for me.

And yet—why should the pursuit of cool start so early? If we define cool as the negative space around which floats all the stuff that is decidedly uncool, we are left with some solid concepts to avoid, like enthusiasm, neediness, artlessness, and dependency. Yet those happen to be traits we also associate with kids. So how is it that, for so many people, our first education in cool takes place in the schoolyard? Why is it practically impossible to untangle cool from childhood?

One obvious answer, of course, is that kids see themselves much differently from the way adults see kids. A parent dressing an 8-year-old in trendy sneakers, Gap dark denim jacket, and shades does so ironically: The joke is that little Timmy can’t possibly possess the world-weariness (or taste) that is a prerequisite for hipness. But Timmy thinks he looks awesome! When he goes out to play in his new clothes, he may shout a little louder or even tackle a girl. His kid-cool in this scenario is the unrefined, exuberant precursor to adult-cool: confidence that hasn’t yet mellowed into insouciance.  

A lot of kids are kid-cool. (I’m not talking about celebabies like Blue Ivy, who are undisputedly cool but only as objects or accessories.) Peter Pan, Kiernan Shipka, Jaden Smith in The Karate Kid, and the youngest James daughter on Nashville all fit the bill: not self-aware enough to worry about what the world thinks of them, but mature enough to have a personality. The girl who knows beyond the shadow of a doubt—and three weeks in advance—that she wants cotton-candy ice cream with rainbow sprinkles at the Baskin Robbins is kid-cool. Maybe she doesn’t possess a sophisticated palate, but, if you mess with her, she will destroy you.

There’s an intermediate stage between kid-cool and adult-cool in the strict sense of Carl Wilson’s definition (an air of “knowingness” or “detached assessment,” a steady nonchalance): popular. For girls, popular generally means being friendly and nice: In one study, female grade schoolers reported more liking for same-sex peers who shared their toys, while male grade schoolers preferred the kids who were bossy and aggressive. Yet evidence suggests that, as girls get older, higher status actually starts to predict less liking. Adolescent queen bees (possibly according to science and certainly according to legend) more often owe their tiaras to beauty, wealth, and some—but not too much!—sexual experience, while prom kings can thank a mix of physical attractiveness, athleticism and sociability. In teen popularity, then, you start to see the seeds of adult-cool—an ineffable allure (radiating from good looks or the right clothes), a kind of physical grace (demonstrated in sports or, um, bed), and an indifference to other people’s opinions (because if you can be unlikeable but still cool, then who cares about likeability?)

Still, popular doesn’t quite equal adult-cool—more like adult-cool with training wheels. The senior football star may set hearts atwitter, but his performance on the field is all about straight-laced things like exertion, sweat, effort and team spirit. The cute girl he’s dating may inspire envy, but her taste in music may eventually come off as a little mainstream. Sometime around high school, what’s “in” starts to lap itself; a new, reactionary crowd claims a corner of the cafeteria; popular and cool begin to drift apart.

Let’s pause here for a second, at the first real emergence of mature cool. This is where we meet the rebels, critics and counter-culturals; the gorgeous depressives with wounded eyes; the dropouts; the people who will transform popularity from a near synonym of cool into cool’s polar opposite. Here is the lunch table with subversive adult-cool icons like John Bender, Daria, and James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause. That they are young, lost, and vulnerable is no accident. The romance of cool has a lot in common with the romance of adolescence: a sense of recklessness and danger, a fantasy of indestructibility, the disillusionment that comes with growing up, the rejection of rules and the past.

In fact, maybe the coolest thing about an actual cool kid is that she’s grown up too soon. As Wilson observes, Americans have created a cult of extreme youthfulness that venerates 11 year-old fashion bloggers and hoody-wearing tech wunderkinds. But would these pontiffs of hipness keep their luster if they weren’t doing adult things like founding media empires or topping the singles charts (and possibly ending up on the brink of nervous breakdown because of it)? We may idealize youth, but only when its energetic abandon gets exquisitely complicated by darkness and savoir faire.

At the same time, sophistication means nothing without Little Timmy’s unreflective swagger. So perhaps cool belongs equally to the preteen streaming Truffaut on her laptop and the grown-ass man who watches Adventure Time on Cartoon Network. It is for young people who want to be old and old people who want to be young. And it is for old people who wish, looking back, they had been the young people they now find cool, not the young people they actually were. Hence the familiar conversation in which adults try to convince other adults that they are cool by conjuring up images of their deep grade-school nerdiness. The coup of folding kid-lame into adult-hip!

Though I guess I may have done that at the beginning of this essay. I swear I really did like Buffy, not The O.C. We’re cool, right?

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