"If everyone else was jumping off a cliff, would you do it too?" I'm pretty sure that 97.9% of parents have demanded this at some point while they were raising their children. The very real influence of peers can be scary for parents. We want to protect our children, but the wider world pulls them further from us. How can we keep them on track and also let them grow? Read and be encouraged!
When I was a child we lived in a suburb of New York City so when my brothers or I argued that everyone else was doing such and such that we were not allowed to do, my mother would counter with: "If everyone else was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge would you do it too?" It was an unsatisfactory response when we really wanted to something...but she stood strong in her resolve to keep us all on the straight and narrow. That's what moms do.
Peer pressure feels like a scary and nefarious element that reaches into our homes to snatch our children away like a monster in the night. It conjures up images of illicit drug use, seductive young people stealing our child's innocence, or a charismatic cult leader luring our teens into the desert. Peer pressure strikes fear into the hearts of parents.
But take heart: typically, peer pressure has more to do with fashion, hairstyle, slanguage, or hobbies. Peer pressure is usually the culprit when your avid train enthusiast switches their attention to rockets, or the child that cheered for your alma mater suddenly is a fan of the arch rival. Short hair grown long, long hair chopped off, neon blue sneakers instead of white, and so on. These changes are pretty harmless and indicate that your child is doing what you always knew they would: they are growing up.
I know...it happened so fast.
Peer pressure can also be, on occasion, a positive factor in your child's world. A bit of healthy competition to work hard on a group project may make your child a more conscientious student. A friend who can play guitar may encourage your child to take it up too. In a church youth group setting, peer pressure can help your child become aware of how to help our elderly neighbors do light home maintenance. There are many positive influences that can be placed in your child's path through their peers.
But what about the other stuff? What about the use of profanity when you have set a better example? What about when your child joins the other kids in teasing a vulnerable classmate at school? What about when your child follows the example of another child who is openly disrespectful of the teacher? Do you even know what happens on some school buses?
You may think you know what your child would do when faced with these scenarios , but trust me. There have been many hidden camera studies done in which children did all these things while their shocked parents watched behind the scenes. These were all parents who declared that their child "would never do that". We "taught them better". And they did teach them better. You are teaching your child better. But you can do more to help them overcome the pressure that comes from being in a group setting.
Peer pressure is all about belonging; it is all about having a group to identify with. Peer pressure is about knowing that you fit in with others and that you are accepted. If children don't have that sense of belonging, they are more more vulnerable to the influences of their peers. This leaves them open to the behavior or thought patterns modeled by a child with no more maturity than your child. It is the perfect case of the blind leading the blind.
Your child does not have to fall into these traps! You have some tools to use to help avert the damage that can occur when peer pressure goes negative. It is not all that difficult. Using these tools you can actually fight fire with fire. Fight peer pressure with peer pressure.
What are these magic tools? Here is a succinct list of techniques that you can use regularly and intentionally to help your child filter the influences that they will encounter. Print this list and keep it tucked away somewhere you will see it often.
The magic phrase. "In our family we____" Fill in the blank with a positive expectation or value that is important to your family. The key here is to positively state this expectation. Express this as what you do as opposed to what you don't do. This may sound like an unimportant detail, but the magic of this magic phrase is in the positive wording. Ex. "In our family we are kind to people." "In our family we use kind words" "In our family we apologize when we have hurt someone." "In our family we forgive each other." "In our family we help with chores" This phrase is a multi purpose tool. It reminds your child that they already belong to a group that accepts and includes them. It is your family. This group has certain behaviors and values that everyone understands. Using this phrase reminds your child that they don't have to go outside your family circle for a place to belong. They already belong.
Give them a heads up. You know the little temptations that rise up in classrooms or the playing field. You remember what children do and say when they are together. Let your memory serve as a way to help your child know what to expect. Suggest to your children some specific things that they can do or say in a situation before it arises. There will come a time when they are tempted to follow their peers right off a cliff. Tell them this. Do not let them be caught off guard. For example: In every classroom there is a child that becomes the target of the others. Remind your child that they can always say to their peers "That's mean! Stop teasing them!". They may be afraid to do this, but tell them that being a hero means interrupting unkind behavior and words. It is what the job of being a hero is all about. "In our family we stand up for others."
Ask the good questions, engage in the conversations. "Who are your friends in your class?" Who are some other friends that you see talking or working together?" Is there anyone in your class that doesn't seem to have a friend?" In this way you are helping your child to see beyond themselves. They learn to look at the people around them and notice them. Noticing others is the first step toward a more welcoming and cooperative community. When your child begins to share the day to day adventures of their classroom with you, listen intentionally. Look at your child as they speak and let your body language indicate that you are listening. You can pick up some clues that can help you open the door to the conversations that remind your child that sometimes they will have to make decisions to be different and that it is okay.
Your child is vulnerable in the world. So are you. Your advantage is that you have walked the human path for many more years than your child. Use your wisdom and knowledge to help your child avoid the pot holes in the road. Use your wisdom positively. Use your knowledge to offer light for their journey. Accompany your child as they encounter the world and all its complexities. There is so much joy in being there to listen and guide.
Enjoy your child this week! Smile at them and give them a positive word.