Parental Peer Pressure

The question this month is from me to you : How much of the time do you do what your peers do, disregarding your own parenting instincts which tell you to do things differently? I have conferred with many parents in this situation. Although we want our kids not to be swayed by peer pressure, peer pressure has a great effect on the way we parent. A generation ago we were all supposed to spank our children; now we know that was wrong. Now we’re all supposed to use Time Out, grounding, and curfews, and to take personal responsibility for our children’s homework. Nobody is supposed to question the effectiveness or sense of these methods, as everyone uses them. I’d like to encourage you to think for yourselves, and not just use what everyone else is using if it doesn’t fit your child or your situation.The examples I picked are personal annoyances of mine, because I too feel the pressure, perhaps more acutely because I’ve been a parent educator. Yet much of the time I don’t agree with the use of these techniques.

Take curfews for teens, for example. A family I know has a responsible but popular 16 year old girl, who goes out to parties a lot. Although she and her friends drink at parties, they always have a “designated driver.” Her parents feel peer pressure to set a curfew on her. Unfortunately, these parents don’t have the option of making the entire teenage society never drink alcohol and come home to sleep at home at 11 p.m. If this girl has, say, a 1 a.m. curfew, what will her choices be? She can leave her friends two to three hours early, effectively cutting off her social life. If she has the family car, she can be the only non-drinking partier every time, or she can drive drunk. If she doesn’t, she can leave the party before the last bus (usually at midnight) or she can try to find a (drunk) driver to take her home early. None of these options make as much sense as allowing her to stay until the party ends and then riding home with (or being) the sober designated driver.

None of my three children (and the youngest is now 18) have ever had an imposed curfew – and none have needed it. They have told me where they’re going and I’ve been assured of their safety. If they’re overtired in the morning, it’s been a natural consequence they’ve learned from. A curfew would only have set up an unnecessary power struggle over a nonexistent problem.

Take another example, grounding. It’s a popular negative consequence for misbehavior. It certainly punishes the child who’s misbehaved. It also punishes the parents who have to stay home with that miserable, sulky child, as well as the child’s friends who haven’t themselves misbehaved and are looking forward to seeing him. If the child decides to go out anyway, there’s a new problem to fight over. Even Ann Landers assumes that grounding is useful, but I’m not clear why. Yet every parent thinks they must use it, because everyone else does.

Then there’s Time Out. A parenting video which is popular with professionals, “1-2-3 Magic,” recommends Time Out as the solution for every single problem behavior.
Personally, I find the “1 – 2 – 3 Magic” video appalling! The author actually tells us to modify our children’s behavior just as we would if we were training an animal, using the same negative consequence (putting the child in Time Out) for every single behavior problem. He allows two warnings before the consequence is used (thus the “1-2-3”). He doesn’t discuss teaching the child empathy, helping the child make amends when she’s hurt someone, or removing a privilege. He doesn’t pay any attention to the child’s feelings, which may be creating the problem behavior in the first place. He doesn’t consider how unloved and abandoned many children feel if isolated. He doesn’t advocate listening to children. Just get out the old “hammer” of Time Out, since that’s the only tool he has, and use it regardless of whether the problem requires a saw or a wrench or a screwdriver. Many parents use Time Out this way, just as they used to use spanking – as a shortcut to avoid thinking about the problem or seeing their child as a person. Now, I’m not against giving a child (age about 5 to 9) a short Time Out to calm down and stop interacting with other people if he’s too wound up and needs calming, or if his behavior is hurting others. But it’s a very specific tool for a very specific kind of situation; it’s not the solution to every problem!

And homework. Now, if your child has a learning disability, and really needs someone to help him organize his time, encourage him about his ability to do the work, and explain to him the parts he doesn’t understand, it’s legitimate for you to help with homework. But most of the time parents of quite normal children are expected by other parents and many teachers to take over responsibility for their children’s homework. Instead of the child learning to organize his time and get his work done in time, receiving a poorer grade if he doesn’t, and learning from that experience, we take this over. The child’s performance and learning becomes our thing rather than the child’s own accomplishment, and many children learn to wait to be nagged. They lose their love of learning, as they feel they are doing the work to please us. Children will learn to organize their own time and work if we truly leave it up to them. But to allow this to happen, we have to resist the peer pressure which tells us that we’re neglectful parents if we let a child’s work be his problem rather than ours.

We want our children to resist peer pressure. They will follow our example. Are we able to resist it ourselves, think through our parenting strategies, and only use something if it makes sense to us, not just because the “crowd” of other parents is doing it?