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Peer Pressure
By Erin Chianese
 
Just because we homeschool does not mean that there will be no negative influences or negative peer pressure. When my daughter was 10 she was really into the Spice Girls. She liked their power girl songs and how could I object when one of the songs was about how much they appreciate their mothers! At our park day a group of boys occasionally enjoyed spending some time with the group of girls my daughter was in. Once, the boys spoke rudely on how the Spice Girls were not cool and how could anyone like them, etc. All the girls agreed and my daughter was upset that none of her friends spoke up when they really did like the singers. This is a minor incident, but it illustrates the point that the girls did not want to appear childish or stupid in the eyes of the boys. To me, it was the first time I heard about peer pressure among the homeschoolers and I awoke from my naiveté. My daughter learned that negative peer pressure involves getting hurt, humiliated or ostracized. She was confused about why her friends gave in and why the boys acted that way.

Peer pressure is related to power over others. There is power in a group, there is power in influence, and there is power in causing pain to others. I think we need to talk to our kids about power. Any group is going to have leaders and followers. Both have their place, and there does not have to be a dominance issue involved. The follower has his own gift just as much as the leader, and should feel honored as long as the leader is not exerting power over him. Maybe we can help our kids try to recognize how they feel when someone is exerting pressure or power over them. If they recognize that uncomfortable feeling, they can back out of or deal with the situation. And conversely, we can help them to recognize how they feel and what that means when they might be the one exerting the power.

School is structured so that peers are those in the same class (or grade) and peers are the same age. Webster's Dictionary says peers are those "of equal standing with one another". This is easy for homeschoolers to understand because our kids interact with many different ages of children, as well as adults. My younger daughter just joined a writing group made up entirely of adults. These are new peers to her; they each exchange writing samples and constructive criticisms. For the purpose of discussing peer pressure with our kids, it may be important to distinguish the difference between a peer and a friend. A friend has stood the test of time, the relationship is more intimate, acceptance is a given.

When I worry about negative peer pressure on my children, I don't really think about drug or alcohol issues. I more envision a child's sense of self slowly crumbling away day to day as a group of peers chide or tease her. When I see my bleached blonde 12-year-old nephew asking only for designer clothes and shoes for Christmas, I wonder if these items get him a ticket into the social group of his choice. I wonder what he would look like otherwise. Making it more complicated, his choices involve the pressure from advertisers targeting our children by using peer pressure as a tool. Even more dangerous than outward appearance is that, at the time a teen is finding their own inner identity, peer pressure can shape choices in this area of life. I remember when I was in the 8th grade, "trying on other classmates' personalities." I dropped my two best friends to be with more hip kids. It was not cool to get good grades, so I would hide my A's from everyone. I would only read books in private. My mother's story is more poignant. She was into art since she was 8 years old and dropped her drawing and painting to spend all her time being with her friends in jr. high and high school. She didn't pick her art up again until she was 45! I think peer pressure is a very hard thing to deal with. We all look at the people surrounding us as part of our own image. Even if we have loads of self-esteem, if we feel very accomplished, and we have support from family and friends, we are still influenced by our peers. When I tell people I am a homeschooling mom, I wonder which image pops up in their mind. And the image in my mind: How much have I shaped that image to define myself by the homeschooling moms in my life?

While discussing the purpose of peer pressure, a friend suggested that it keeps our society within a norm. It establishes the standard or code to behave within. This applies to all aspects of our society. I can get lost thinking about this in the bigger picture. But as an adult I deal with peer pressure in my daily life. I was asked yesterday to baby-sit, overnight, a daughter of my husband's new co-worker. The mother is in a bind and assures me that her daughter will be comfortable among us even though we are strangers to her. I felt uneasy about the situation. Should I help her as a fellow mom since I do want her daughter to be someplace safe? As another example, when my kids were younger we often had their friends over for a play day. One mom in particular always argued with me when I did not allow the kids to do something, even when it was eating candy or watching television. She would harp on me to say "Yes". I would become flustered at first and then I often gave in because it seemed easier. In both of these situations, I felt uncomfortable with the standard and behavior set by the peer exerting the pressure. Teaching our kids how to deal with peer pressure is difficult when we may be struggling with it ourselves.

I usually view peer pressure as a negative term. But there is a positive side to it and it is this side that adolescents and teens are looking for. It is the sense of belonging and learning from others out there in the world. As teens are pushing away from parents, seeking their independence, they are also searching for their identity, and both of these endeavors take them to other kids who are going through the same things. They can be supportive, sympathetic, and loving.

Peer groups can offer safe places for experimentation, such as teen theatre clubs or music bands or just a close-knit group of friends. Hopefully, my bleached-blonde nephew is doing his experimenting with different personas among kids who are doing the same thing. This may be a part of the process of belonging, subsequently leading to the discovery of differences among friends. Individual personal values will surface with a sense of security. If a friend is close to his own family, a teen can see this as a value. At 16, I remember having a friend whom I envied, who had five siblings. He would spend time with them and help out or joke around with them. I loved being around that atmosphere.

When my daughter was 8, she joined a Brownie troop. All the other girls attended the same school and after two years she was ready to leave because she and two other girls were continually left out of conversations and camaraderie. I decided to start a "Girls' Club" among the homeschooled girls. I wanted the girls to have a connection in both fun and work situations. I thought that since the girls in our homeschool support group are going to know each other for a long time, and since they were in many small clusters of girls at the park days, they would all benefit from having a place to call their own where they could be together. Last year we had 14 girls in it, ages 10-13. I had several rules they had to follow, one being "everyone is included". The club was a big success for the girls. All of the girls were respected and included by each other. They took turns leading the meetings with crafts or games. They made group decisions and if someone had a different idea, we tried to implement both. There was always a parent present to help and supervise activities, but as far as peer pressure went, there were no negative incidents. I felt there was only positive peer pressure in the air.

Peer groups can keep its members interested in, and going to, a chess club or a religious youth group or to soccer practice. Peers can be focused on studies, or singing, or animals. If one peer is focused on anything, another peer will be inspired by that person's dedication. If one kid is passionate about riding horses, his friend will probably go along for a ride or hear a lot about horses. Enthusiasm always rubs off. I think this is what makes a great teacher - his/her enthusiasm for the subject matter. So even if you don't like horses, you admire the love for horses and the hard work involved. You have a renewed enthusiasm for your own pursuits.

There are many tools we can give our kids to help them deal with negative peer pressure. We can talk to them about being responsible for their own choices and the following consequences. We can ask them why they might have given in to peer pressure in a particular instance. Were they curious? Was everyone else doing it? Why was it hard to say "No"? Did it make sense to give in? Were you or anyone else hurt by it? These things are hard to realize and we can help them figure it all out by being a sounding board.

We can give them words to use that mean "No." Role-playing can easily create words and situations from the viewpoints of both you and your child. Humor can get a dialogue going; it can lighten things up. Sometimes, using humor makes it more comfortable to say no in a sticky situation. For example, in response to "Do you want to smoke?" answer with, "No thanks, I don't need to send any signals now." Or to "Let's shoplift," how about an, "Oh no, that store is too heavy for me to pick up." Even though these examples sound silly, a child may find it easier to joke in order to deflect attention off his/her answer of "No". The "No" is what is important in the moment and the child can come away with evaluating the incident and the values of his peers in later reflection.

We can encourage our kids to help a friend who is trying to say "No." We can tell them how much more courageous they are in rejecting a difficult situation. We can point out their gifts and strengths in each of the scenes they describe to us. We can tell them our own experiences. We can model for them when we come across peer pressure in our own lives. We can continue to boost their self-esteem.

My main reason to homeschool has always been to avoid suppression of my children's creativity, pursuits, and personalities. Negative peer pressure is a form of suppression. It is unavoidable even for our homeschooled kids. We are lucky to be so involved in our kids' lives. We know the other personalities surrounding our kids and we can help our children deal with them. We are physically there too so we can notice what is going on. Just as we began to deal with it when we were in school, our kids need to know how to deal with it in their lives. With awareness, communication, and guidance, we can help them learn about peer pressure. E.C.
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