As a parent, I’m sure you’ve wondered about your child and what to do with peer pressure and the need they have to be like everyone else? As you know peer pressure can make many kids and adults for that matter do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do. As humans, we want to fit in and that can inadvertently lead to the following the voice that shouts the loudest. It’s why a bully often has a ring of followers who contribute to the bullying in ways that if they didn’t actively support that person, the bullying would never get off the ground.
The danger of conformity
The other night I watched a movie that really illustrated this. It wasn’t about peer pressure per se but it was about what happens when we blindly follow someone because we’ve been let to believe we should. In this case, it was about blindly following the will of a police officer. The directions of the police force are of course something we are told from a young age we should follow but here it shows the danger of following anything blindly. The desperate need to fit in and look as though we are doing things correctly is, after all, a form of peer pressure. The movie then brings up an important question of just how do help a child deal with with peer pressure when they’re young and stand up for we know in our hearts to be right?
A cautionary tale
The story follows the true tale of a McDonald’s manager and her staff. During one shift, a man posing as a police officer calls the restaurant and explains that one of her employees has taken some money from a customer. The caller then gets the manager to strip search the girl leaving her naked, scared and ‘held’ in a back room of the restaurant. From there, the situation gets even more bizarre and frankly hard to believe, though apparently the movie stays entirely true to what happened. The entire saga was caught on close circuit camera and proves that truth, is often stranger than fiction.
What is so interesting about this film is, of course, what the title portrays, ‘compliance.’ That people will often do as they are told by someone who is seemingly in authority, even if those orders cross a very obvious moral boundary.
Teaching a child to stand up for what’s right is a long term task
Once you ask the question of how do I help my child with peer pressure, then the most important thing to understand is that it is a task that takes place over the long term. We often concentrate instead on the short-term about whether our child plays well, eats ok and has a good nights sleep etc. But there’s a whole world of grey out there that we have to teach as well and which is equally important as the day to day.
If our human nature makes it so easy to cross a moral boundary, how do we teach kids to fight against it? How would you react when faced with the same dilemma? Would you stand up for what is right and listen to your inner voice or do as you’re told?
What would you do?
You know, there’s a funny thing about human nature. We often think we’d behave in a way that research tells us, we likely won’t. Have you ever heard of the Milgram experiment? Well, it was this experiment that showed us that people will carry on administering pain to someone with electric shocks even when they clearly felt uncomfortable, particularly if they told to carry on by someone in authority who absolved them of the responsibility. If you’re interested you can read about it here.
Ok, so let’s go back to the kids. If we know that most people are inclined to follow authority, even in cases when those orders directly contravene their moral code, how do we create kids that are strong enough to be the ones to stay ‘no.’ How do we create leaders, not sheep?
Today you’re creating a leader or a sheep
The first thing to be aware of, is that it’s easy to believe that tests of your child’s ethical code will only happen when they grow up. That dealing with these dilemmas are something that’s way off in your child’s future, that you certainly don’t need to worry about right now.
But I disagree. You see, your child, as they grow, is going to be tested constantly. Ask yourself what makes someone become a bullying bystander, that does nothing to stop the hurt? What makes someone leave another kid out of the play, ‘because she’s not like us,’ or shop lift because ‘their friend was doing it.’ What makes them say, “Oh, mom I only took drugs because “I didn’t want to feel stupid.”
All children as they grow will be faced with these moral dilemmas and teaching your kids how to deal with them doesn’t suddenly start when they are approached by one. It’s starts by being on the right track from day one, something I offer to all my clients through my parenting support services. When it comes to when to start teaching about moral dilemmas you want to start when they’re running around getting in to stuff and you barely have the energy to get through the day. When it’s all about playdates and picky eating their way through dinner. Right now, today, you are creating leaders who will stand up to authority or you’re creating sheep.
But that begs a question. If you want a child who can say no to something that is not right and risk the ire of others, how do you get that? What can you do specifically?
So what can I do practically?
Well, how you parent when your children is young determines the foundation on which all other aspects of character can be laid. If you are a natural leader, you give your child something to follow, to emulate. You provide the rock on which everything else is built.
A child needs leadership
A child needs authority. They need to know that their parent is on top of things and will provide stability. It’s that stability and natural authority that gives you, the parent, the ability to lead and when you lead, you teach children what leading is all about. You show them through your actions what providing a clear decent path forward means.
So what does that mean in practical terms? Well, it means limiting choice to when they can handle it and being careful not to introduce choice too early as it can make your child feel as if they are running the family instead of you. If you’d like to know exactly when to introduce choice, read my article on toddler choice here. It means making children part of the activity but not always the focus of it and orienting your day around what’s needed for the family as a whole.
Point out your principals often
Then over time you introduce them to and work through, the grey areas. First, point out those areas. Of course, these will be based on your personal principals but they could include things like; is the reason some kids do much better at school than others because some kids get help and others don’t? Is that person homeless because they are useless or because something horrible has befallen them? Why are they teasing that girl just because she’s a different colour?
It’s ok to disagree with adults
Teach your children to question what they see and hear and practice with them standing up for what is right. Teach them to respect adults but that it is ok to disagree with an authority figure, providing they are polite. If your child is accused of something and you know they didn’t do it, back them up. Yet, equally important is to be aware that if they have done it, they must pay the price. As hard as it is, it’s important not to try and shield them from the consequences of their actions. Only by feeling the consequences, can they learn why they shouldn’t do it again.
It’s funny but knowing that your parent will stand up for what is right is a powerful deterrent to children. Finding out that you won’t just take their side because you’re mom or dad, helps children figure out what went wrong and their part in it. It also displays ethical courage right in front of them and gives them something to live up to. It’s that kind of thing that might have made a difference that night at the McDonalds. Perhaps it might even have made the manager put down the phone.