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Peer pressure and parental responsibility: where are the lines?

September 25th, 2004 · 5 Comments

Peer pressure is bad, isn’t it? It’s the reason why kids engage in destructive behaviors. The excuse for drug use. Everybody’s doin’ it.

But last month, on our road trip to the Bay Area, I started to believe that peer pressure could be good. A friend told me that peer pressure had motivated her daughter to learn to ride her bike without training wheels: all the other six-year-olds were doing it.

After we came home from our trip, our island community lost two teenagers in two separate auto accidents late at night. Along with the grief and sorrow, the critical lenses came out; residents and newspaper editors calling on parents and the community to change their ways.

Within that same week, I had my own small experience with parental responsibility and community. I took my daughters grocery shopping on a Saturday morning. Abigail had insisted on wearing shorts even though the weather was cool. I cautioned her and then told her she would have to live with the consequences of her choice.

At the store, the girls and I were walking through the dairy case when Abigail began complaining: I’m cold, cold, cold, cold!

My daughter tends to be excessive in her reactions. She is six years old. And I figured, this example was a harmless way for her to learn a lesson.

But as my daughter was voicing her opinion, another shopper, a woman in a sweat suit, taller than me, chastised her. Next time you should wear more clothing! Take a jacket or coat! She spoke sharply to my girl, with an air of authority, and then walked swiftly past us before I had time to react.

At first I was a bit angry and surprised. I wanted to confront her. Or at least explain my thoughts and tell her what I was teaching my daughter.

My response may seem silly. But as a parent and as a friend of other parents, I have learned that there are lines I respect, lines I don’t cross. I have friends who bottle feed their kids and I have other friends who breastfeed until age 4. I have friends who only allow wooden toys and I have friends whose living rooms are filled with plastic electronics. Even if I disagree with a child’s actions or a parent’s permissions and preferences, I’ve learned to respect the lines and to respect my friends. A parent’s choice is a parent’s choice. Unless I am good friends with a parent, I don’t approach a child to correct her behavior, and even then, I would check with the parent first.

I felt that this stranger, this woman in the athletic outfit, had crossed a line. What right did she have to address my daughter? Why didn’t she ask me first? Didn’t she know I was trying to teach her a lesson without words?

Then again, the words spoken to Abigail were effective. She immediately stopped complaining. When I asked her afterwards, she didn’t seem upset. But the stranger’s response helped her realize her own attitude. It was a mirror that a mother couldn’t provide.

I began to wonder. Perhaps for some children, peer pressure can be helpful. The opinions of others -outside the family and friendships – may help them learn valuable lessons.

And I began to consider the situation on our island. If my children were out drinking and driving at night, wouldn’t I welcome a stranger’s correction? If they were picking up beer and cigarettes at the grocery store, would I want someone to stop them?

Now a child wearing too few clothes in the grocery store is not in the same situation as a group of teenagers joyriding on a curvy road or consuming cases of beer. I don’t think the stranger’s intervention was necessary. I got upset at her intrusion into my perceived parental rights.

But then again – is that the problem? That I believe that we parents alone have a right to determine the needs and allowed behaviors of our children? That I put up a shield and prevent others from commenting on my parenting or correcting my daughters? If Bainbridge Island is going to become a community where we begin to care for each other more and prevent teen tragedies, then do we need to drop the walls and the barriers we set up as parents? Do we as parents need to allow others into our lives, to let us see other angles, participate in our relationships and even chastise our children?

As a response to the sorrow and losses, a new group has started on the island for parents of teens, called Mama Llamas. I think that this idea is great. But I believe that there needs to be a continuum of parenting support groups, from birth through early adulthood. I’ve participated in a few different baby groups, and I would say that most new parents are intensely involved and caring in their children’s lives. But what happens by the time the teenage years arrive? How many of those same parents are involved and protective? There are groups and resources for moms and dads who are having babies. But what about middle school moms? Third grader dads? I’ve noticed from my own experience that the baby playgroups tend to fall apart around the time preschool and other classes start. Relationships cannot be forced. However if we as a community had a greater vision and practical support for parents through all the years, beginning at birth, then perhaps the teen years would be less difficult for kids and parents. What if we had parental peer pressure to stay involved in each other’s lives?

Speaking of parental peer pressure, this island is often diagnosed with this disorder. Everyone wants to keep up with everyone else. Possessions and lessons are emphasized. Appearance is valued in everything from gardens to houses to physiques. So the children absorb these values too.

Joanne Jacobs linked to a Newsweek article that described parents who can’t say no and included a crib sheet of 17 variations on that two letter word.

This generation of parents has always been driven to give their kids every advantage, from Mommy & Me swim classes all the way to that thick envelope from an elite college. But despite their good intentions, too many find themselves raising “wanting machines” who respond like Pavlovian dogs to the marketing behemoth that’s aimed right at them..

The article also mentioned support groups for parents who are trying to make simpler choices. Joanne Jacobs called such parents wimps. …I just made it clear that nagging, whining and sulking never would be effective strategies….

Ted and I have been setting limits for our children for years. However, I can see the reason for having a support group. Here on Bainbridge Island, such support might be powerful. It can be a lonely road in this kind of community to choose not to buy designer clothes, iPods or cars for your children. When everybody’s doing it, nobody wants to be the nobody who’s not. And parents have lost their parenting skills, I would argue, or perhaps we never learned them, having spent hours as latch-key kids home alone with tv. We are a consumer society, raised on conformity and credit cards. Identity – on the island, and elsewhere – comes from what you drive, where you live and how you look. Providing a place where parents and their kids can find others with similiar goals could encourage the community as a whole. It could be an effective form of positive peer pressure for families and encourage the responsibility that needs to be exercised in one simple word: No.

Tags: family

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 philippe // Sep 25, 2004 at 7:54 am

    This is a very thoughtful (as usual) reflexion Julie.
    You write that parents have lost their parenting skills or maybe they did not have them to begin with? What model did they own parents provide?
    On thursday I attended the presentation at Eagle Harbor Bookstore by Helen Thayer about living with a family of wolves in the Arctic.
    There were a few points related to your story.
    First parents are not the only educators, the whole pack is.
    The problem -or one of the problems- is that very often the pack does not exist any longer: individualism does not mix necessarily with community and the traditional family circle (that also had its problems) is mostly gone (family members don’t stay close because people move around a lot).
    So young parents are left with their need (if they perceive it) to rebuild a community. And this should not be only a community of the same age: our two youngest daughters were fortunate enough to go spend two months this summer with my mother (77). It is important to have relationships with persons of different age but how do you do that when your grandparents live far away. How do you find grandparents surrogates.
    Anyway I am drifting away.
    I agree with your feeling of isolation when confronted with the parenting task. The traditional community was/is in many ways quite rigid, strictly enforcing the traditional rules. You don’t mess with your “superiors” in a pack of wolves: you learn to respect them or live with the consequences. At the same time the pack provides security and support and teaches the necessary skills to survive as wolves as well as -apparently- the necessity to take care of each member of the pack.
    You can listen to the recording it is a fascinating adventure and it is too bad so few people were able to see the pictures and hear her.
    There were wonderful stories about wolves and bears and Charlie the half-wolf half huskie dog.
    Look at experiences like co-housing: they are a concerted effort to rebuild living communities trying to mix different age groups.
    Got to go.
    Have a good foggy week-end

  • 2 paul // Sep 25, 2004 at 8:26 am

    It takes a village . . . . to echo Philippe.

    And peer pressure is really just modelling and following the example of good behavior.

  • 3 Betsy Devine // Sep 25, 2004 at 11:24 am

    I so identify with your angry, want-to-confront-her reflex when somebody criticizes your child. Was the world a better place when the whole village was raising each child, often by yelling at or even smacking each other’s kids? For that scenario to work, you need lots of connections and trust among the adults, plus a strongly-shared agreement about the ways children should behave. My mother and mother-in-law were moderns–very rarely and tentatively did they ever question my ways of mothering. So, when such criticisms become so rare, we’re even less able to cope when they occur, reading them as “I see a bad child with a bad mother, and I don’t care how much psychic damage I’m doing to either of you as I point out your shortcomings to the whole world.”

    Julie, anyone who knows you from your blog knows what a great job you and Ted are doing with the girls. I guess that’s my point, assuming I have a point.

  • 4 natasha // Sep 25, 2004 at 8:52 pm

    I can’t remember where I read it, but a survey of youth outcomes once indicated that children were likelier to thrive if raised in a bad home-good peer environment than the reverse. Not promoting bad homes, but peer influence is hugely important.

    My mom always told me stories about being a kid when a call to your parents from a neighbor or teacher would definitely get you punished, and the church denomination she raised us in had a similar structure. Now, parents don’t always even listen to the criticisms of teachers. There are benefits and drawbacks, both, I guess.

    I have no idea what kind of parent I’ll be like though, so you can take whatever I have to say on the subject with exactly that perspective.

  • 5 Julie Leung: Seedlings & Sprouts // Sep 30, 2004 at 9:37 am

    If it takes a village, how do you get what it takes?

    A few days ago I wrote a piece exploring the lines and limits of peer pressure and parental responsibility in society. I received insightful comments and I especially wanted to respond in another post to the thoughtful ones left by…