[Week 39 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Where does peer pressure come from?
Parents often talk about peer pressure like it is some kind of mystical evil force. They think at best they can warn their children about it, like Gandalf warned Frodo about the ring of power. The expectation is there will be much unavoidable suffering, with some hope of a narrow escape from falling into the abyss. But peer pressure is not that complicated or mysterious.
Peer pressure is a term like teenager, in that it has been invented to talk about a script that crams young adults backward into the role of children. Calling young adults teenagers is a way to marginalize them from adult society, including both opportunity and responsibility. Peer pressure is a by product of that.
Forced age segregation is a significant part of this marginalization. The fact that this is usually a continuation from segregation at early ages makes its impact on social interactions that much more destructive. Family interactions are limited to a couple of hours a day, which are ironically predominantly spent getting ready to leave for or fulfill requirements of outside (other than family) institutions.
Children learn early in most families that the parent’s role is primarily about transportation and funding. In the institutional classrooms, parents are rarely referred to as sources of wisdom or desirable to have relationships with. Each generation of children is usually taught that it is the smartest and will save the world from all the folly of previous generations.
Cultural propaganda encourages parents not to expect good relationships with their children. Parents think they are not fit to teach their children hardly anything, despite being products of the same system. It is a vicious circle that distorts and destroys family interactions.
What does this have to do with peer pressure?
It is useful to use more correct terms so that we can better understand what the issue is. Peer pressure is a deceptive term that masks what is really going on.
The truth is that EVERYONE is subject to social pressure. What is important is which pressures are strongest and whose opinions matter the most. Social pressure can be positive or negative, but it is pressure for these reasons:
- for acceptance
- for comfort
- to avoid conflict
Even in a group based on standards of truth or morality, there are expectations in addition to those standards. They might be mere cultural norms or they might be considered the best option.
Which social pressure would you like?
Many people who think they are flouting social pressure are really just choosing which social pressure to follow. The choosing is based on things like
- who they most want to please
- how it affects opportunity
- who they want to bother or separate from
The social groups that someone spends the most time with typically have the strongest influence. This might be because conformity leads to acceptance or because conformity avoids conflict. There is a basic need to find one’s place in the social structure of a given environment.
When you can’t choose your inmates
Unfortunately, most institutional settings that children are left in are a hybrid between a daytime orphanage and a prison. Not only do the children have no choice about being there, but other choices within are very limited. They are not allowed the freedom of truly getting away from bad actors.
The people who have authority over them while there don’t know them well at all. The staff is more like guards trying to get certain results from the inmates and make sure there are no riots. Even if they want to care for the children, the system precludes them from long term or deep relationships with the children. So children are either left to flounder or become pack leaders who think it is all fun and games or just to find some niche where they don’t cause any stir so they can be left alone.
Some people try to claim this is socializing the children. They make friends there, after all. First of all, just because some people make friends in prison or learn to deal with the person who keeps trying to beat them up doesn’t mean we say that is a good way to “get socialization.”
Secondly, even when puppies are learning to get along, they have a mother (and later an owner) to guide them through the details. This is someone who loves them and knows them. Huge puppy mills have a bad reputation for the same reason schools should have a bad reputation.
If you are tempted to think of the socialization of wild animals, I suggest you look more closely at that. The social structures of wild animals are almost invariably built on a structure of might and power. For example, I recently saw a weaker wolf put in its place by the dominant wolves. I would not want that for any person, let alone a child. It was chilling to watch.
Saying such socialization is preparing the children for the real world is forgetting that they are children with parents who are supposed to protect them from the real world and carefully guide them into it. They are not supposed to be thrown helpless and unprotected into it, having little or no access to the main people who would help them with problems. Besides not being present, parents can’t really help with problems in the system much because,
- they also have little power there,
- help delayed very long is often no help at all, and
- it is much harder for the parents to evaluate what is really going on when they are so removed from the situation and don’t know the others involved.
When potential is denied
By the time these children have grown into young adults, most of them are naturally more concerned with these institutional social pressures. This is especially true if there have also been a lot of extra-curricular activities that keep them separated from parents and family. They might say they genuinely love their parents, but it is more like loving a distant relative that they don’t know very well. Having deeply personal conversations with the parents is often awkward. Too often being close to parents is seen as a sign of weakness and made fun of.
And, as mentioned, the young adults are being treated as children, which they understandably balk against. It is even harder to have a good relationship with someone who is denying an independence you have the potential for. A young adult faced with this conflict will find more camaraderie with other young adults facing the same thing. They will look for ways to establish their independence no matter how hard it is denied. Sometimes this looks like peer pressure.
Understanding the problem shrinks the monster
Have you ever seen a show where a terrifying monster is shrunk into an embarrassingly cute colorful glob? That is what happens to the dread spectre of peer pressure when it is understood. There are things that can be done, both early (always best) and later on.
- Be preemptive. Establish habits of meaningful, patient conversation, where the child knows you like listening to him. Don’t ever complain of your child as a burden or interfering with “your life.” Let the child know the relationship is secure and reliable.
- Offer wise counsel without belittling him. That doesn’t mean don’t be honest about his flaws and weaknesses, but rather, in the face of those, always leave him well aware of his value to you and his value as a person.
- Do not be defensive about his choices or mistakes. Don’t make it about you.
- Keep discussions about life regular and normal. Don’t wait for problems. Besides just having good, every day conversations, look for ways to bring up important concerns and issues he is likely to confront.
- Be gracious in how you talk about others as you help your child. Faults of others can be pointed out without dragging them through the mud. The more gracious you are in general, the more your child will trust you and your judgement.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Things like fashion, vocabulary, and music are usually not as important as people like to act like they are. You might caution against constantly thinking of some lyrics or the benefits of certain language choices, but don’t make a conflict out of personal preferences or tastes.
- Don’t generalize in ways that create barriers between you and your child. It is, for example, destructive to talk about “your” generation or “the way” you grew up like it is superior. Treat your child as an individual and recognize that basic human nature doesn’t change.
- Make every effort to keep your child out of government institutions or any institution that tries to insert itself between you and your child. When your child is young, this is your choice.
- Give your child a non-institutional, home-centered education. Don’t try to mimic institutions when you do this.
- Don’t complain or demand. If this gets you any compliance, it won’t be the right kind and it won’t be long term. If you are struggling with your relationship with your older child or young adult, be calm and undemanding.
- If you are making major changes in your approach, consider explaining it to them. When our children were growing up, we periodically changed expectations in ways that it helped them to know about. It wasn’t about being capricious, but about telling them that we had been evaluating things and based on the current situation, there would be changes we were trying.
- Remember that many friendships your child has will fade with time. Other young people struggling with life often don’t have the wisdom or fortitude to hang in with relationships when the inevitable misunderstandings come. As a parent, you have a unique love and endurance to give your child that he will almost certainly come to appreciate with time.
- Be a good example with how you evaluate your friends and respond to social pressures.
The right kind of social pressure
As a parent, you have a unique opportunity to be the best and right kind of social pressure for your child. With a strong relationship, he will respond better to your influence. You will obviously use this to his benefit.
It is similar to the best way to protect your child from an unhealthy diet. Provide him with lots of fresh, nutritious meals. These will make him grow strong and feel good. He will get used to the taste of it, too. Along the way, naturally teach him why certain foods are good. Explain the pitfalls of a junky or unbalanced diet. Teach him how to prepare good meals.
When he is fully in charge of his own food or relationships, he will make some mistakes, but he will quickly recognize what is wrong. He will have good habits and simple wisdom to guide him. He will probably still have you for some support and insight.
One day, you might even find he can offer you counsel in given situations, because he will be of an age where you two can be more than parent and child. You can also be adult friends and continue to exert good social pressure on one another.