Obeying Parents, Obeying Peers

We have a son who will turn twelve in June. He’s always been somewhat precocious (grown up for his age), also quite peer oriented. We’ve tried building autonomy (independence) in our discussions with him; he seems to understand, and resist. We’re wondering if you have some ideas for us.

I assume that when you said you try to build autonomy and independence in your son, you meant that you want him to be independent from peer pressure rather than from you. Unfortunately, you can’t have one without the other.

A lot of parents dread adolescence, because we know that many children change when they enter their teens. Pleasant, obedient children suddenly become rebellious and foul-mouthed. We hear horror stories, and read them in the newspaper, of unmanageable teens committing crimes or turning to drugs. It is important to understand why a child changes as he enters his teens. Adolescence is a “transition stage” a period when the child is getting ready to do something new in the world. .Every transition stage is turbulent, when the child rejects his or her babyish or childish “old self” in favour of the new, more mature self. The “terrible twos” are a transition stage from babyhood to early childhood, and the 2- year-old’s shout of “No!” signifies his desire not to be treated like a baby. The preschool years are a transition stage from infant to child, and the preschooler has temper tantrums and power struggles with his parents as he establishes that he is a person with a mind and a will of his own, ready to socialize (with supervision) in a wider circle than the family. Then there is a long calm period while the child settles into elementary school, learns basic skills, and establishes himself in the home, school, and a limited circle of friends. During this time, the child learns either to know and like who he is, or to become what his parents want him to be without having an inner sense of self.

The teens are the transition between childhood and adulthood. In a few short years your child is going to have to be an adult, move out from home, earn his own living, and make his own way in the world socially as well as economically. To get ready for this, he begins to orient primarily to people outside the home : the peer group. What happens in the teen years depends on how you handled the earlier stages. If you established that your child must obey you at all costs, always please you, and not think for himself, you will reap the consequences when your child enters his teens, as he focuses that unthinking obedience towards the peer group instead of towards you! If, on the other hand, you respected your child’s individuality and developing ideas, encouraged him to develop his own interests, listened when he disagreed with you, loved him even when he wasn’t doing what you wanted, and handled his rebellion flexibly, your child will have developed a secure sense of who he is, and he won’t be swayed by a peer group. It is a paradox that the child who can best resist peer pressure is not the obedient child, but the child who has learned to think for himself in opposition to his parents.

If the child is resisting you, that’s a good sign. Most children try a few things that their peers do in their early teens, but if they think for themselves, they often realize that many of those things are pretty stupid, and stop doing them. The children who become dominated by dangerous peers are the ones with a desperate need to please others, usually learned at home. Teach your child that your love is not conditional on his pleasing you, that you want him to become his own person, not your “model child,” and that you believe in his maturity and common sense. Then he will handle the teen transition successfully.

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