Ages & Stages: 11-18: The Myth of Peer Pressure

Good old peer pressure. We hear that term thrown around a lot. It’s the cause of bad behavior and impolite language in our little ones. Later on, it’s blamed for everything from bad grades and ugly gossip, to loss of motivation and angry disrespect. Still older, we can pull out peer pressure and use it as the reason for alcohol and drug use, promiscuous sex, even depression and law-breaking. Do these phrases sound familiar?

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I don’t trust some of the friends you’re hanging around with.” Or “Your friends seem so nice when I meet them individually, but as a group they can be so catty and mean.” If you’ve used those terms or others like them and have heard others say them as well, you’re putting a lot of power into peer pressure. It’s not really quite as simple as that.

Let’s look at peer pressure from two perspectives; first — the individual.

Every time you blame peer pressure for your child’s difficulties, problems and misbehavior what you’re actually doing is excusing and scapegoating their personal responsibility for the choices they’re making in their lives. It doesn’t matter if they’re 5, 10 or 15. If you say, “They were all throwing sand in the sandbox.” Or “Her best friends were drinking at the party, you’ve basically said: “She wasn’t responsible.”

You want to try to encourage your child to be strong, resilient and to be able to stand up against the sometimes negative direction and morals of the crowd. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

When they’re trustworthy and honorable, mention that and praise them. When they act badly, accept absolutely no excuse that tries to spread the blame to others.

Set your family up as an institution that supports each other, “Smiths don’t think that way.” Or “The Williams family doesn’t act like that and we don’t expect you to.” This tells them that they’re not alone; they have people whom they can depend on, no matter how lonely or painful. Establish a “secret” code word that when spoken by your child basically means “Get me out of here.” Allow them to blame things on you — “My father will ground me forever!”

Here’s the second perspective and it’s called “culture pressure.” This is the power and influence that is brought to bear on our children by the invasive, all-consuming power of our culture. Peer pressure is nothing compared to culture pressure. It is everywhere, from the television commercials that sell Victoria secret bras (telling our girls that they want to have those kinds of bodies), to the multitude of flyers that appear in every Sunday newspaper telling you exactly what you need to go out and buy that very afternoon (Target has a sale on something — go get it).

You’re not immune to it at all; how can you expect your children to be? It’s about having the right clothes and the right kitchen countertops, the perfect car and the newest fashion shoes. Your friends don’t twist your arm to make you want these things. It’s our culture that twists your arm, your leg and your mind so that you get to a point where you think you need these items to be fulfilled. How can you expect your children to be any different?

Sixth-grade Sarah has the newest cell phone so why can’t I? Eight-year-old Jeff has the absolute latest in video game systems; it’s not fair that I don’t! My boyfriend has an iPod no bigger than a postage stamp. I need one, too! None of those friends are saying that your child needs to get those items. It’s the entire culture that’s telling and selling our children.

The likelihood that someone is going to exert real pressure to get your child to smoke or drink is pretty slim. It can happen, but most often, if your child refuses or just declines, the friend moves on to the next most likely accepting person. But it’s the culture’s voice, talking inside your child’s head that will say, “What’s wrong with me . . . They seem to be doing it and having fun . . . I’m the only one who’s not laughing (or smoking, or drinking). Why can’t I loosen up, too?”

It’s a difficult argument to fight because now you’re fighting an entire culture. It might be fairly easy to keep your child away from an individual. How do you keep him or her away from America?
So let’s put the pressure where it really belongs:

First, it belongs on you and your responsibility to teach your child a different code. Left to their own nature as children and adolescents they’re most likely, at one point or another, going to shirk off chores, take the easy road, fall into bad habits and find excitement and curiosity in the activities that go along with being “bad,” “anti” or, at the very least, obstinate and uncooperative. You stand in the way of that behavior.

Next, the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of your children. No age is too young to be responsible for the things you say and do. That’s your job also, to tell them when they’ve made, not a mistake, but a bad choice.

Personal responsibility or the lack of it, and culture pressure — that’s really how the world works on our children. What will you have to say about both?