As a parent, I’m sure you’ve wondered about your child and what to do about 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 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. It’s also why, during the 1940s, Germans managed to follow one megalomaniac into abject misery.
What to do with peer pressure: 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 led 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: how do we help a child deal with peer pressure when they’re young and stand up for what 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 closed-circuit television and proves that truth is often stranger than fiction.
What is so interesting about this film is, of course, what the title portrays: “compliance,” the idea 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?” the most important thing to understand is that it is a task that takes place over the long term. We often focus on the short term, such as whether our child plays well, eats well, gets enough sleep, and so on, but there is a whole world of grey out there that we must teach as well, and it is just as 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 frequently believe we will behave in ways that research shows we will not. 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 feel uncomfortable, particularly if they are told to carry on by someone in authority who absolves 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 say “no?” How do we create leaders, not sheep?
What to do about peer pressure: 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 occur as they grow older; that dealing with these dilemmas is something that will occur in your child’s future, and that you don’t need to be concerned about them right now.
But I disagree. You see, your child, as they grow, is going to be tested constantly. Consider this: What causes someone to become a bystander who does nothing to alleviate the pain? What makes someone leave another kid out of the play “because she’s not like us,” or shoplift because “their friend was doing it,” or 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 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 teaching moral quandaries, you want to start when they’re running around getting into things and you barely have enough energy to get through the day—when it’s all about playdates and picky eaters eating their way through dinner. You are either creating leaders who will challenge authority or you are creating sheep right now.
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?
What to do with peer pressure: the practicality.
Well, how you parent when your children are 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 and 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 to toddlers, 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.
What to do with peer pressure: 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 principles, 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.
It’s ironic, but knowing that your parent will fight for justice is a powerful deterrent to children. Knowing that you will not simply take their side because you are their mother or father helps children figure out what went wrong and their role 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.
For more help with parenting, visit my parenting services page.
Are you interested in teaching your child resilience? If so, click here for a how-to-guide article on how to teach resilience.
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