I still remember the feeling when my entire second-grade class laughed at me.
We were each taking turns sharing what our parents did at work. “My dad works with computers,” I said.
“Compooters?” said one boy mockingly as several more piped in: “Compooters?!”
It was as if my dad – whom I loved dearly – was an idiot to these kids. A nobody. In a matter of moments, the entire class erupted into laughter at me and my dad’s stupid job.
I was overwhelmingly angry, and yet I remember wanting to run out of that room for forever. As ridiculous as it might sound, that day had an impact on me. I learned an important lesson: NEVER say anything stupid. Because when I say something stupid, my peers reject me. And I can’t handle that kind of rejection.
Our kids are just trying to avoid rejection
In fact, most kids can’t handle that kind of rejection. That’s why they so often go along with what their friends are doing, even if it means going against our wishes or even their own beliefs.
If our kids’ friends are all smoking, do you think your internal voice in their head is enough to keep them from partaking? According to “the few studies that have examined both peer and parent effects, most indicate that peers provide the greater influences on adolescent smoking than parents.”
But what drives our kids to go against our wishes or against their own beliefs? Rejection, or rather, their fear of rejection. If all their friends are smoking and they choose not to smoke, they get rejected. Thus, to avoid getting rejected, they partake.
This threat of rejection – or peer pressure, as it’s normally called – is why our kids’ friends hold such incredible influence over them.
How much influence do their friends have exactly?
Psychologist Judith Rich Harris proposes the Group Socialization Theory in her somewhat controversial book “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.” This theory puts forward the idea that kids’ life decisions are mostly influenced by their friends and are only marginally influenced by their parents.
I’m not sure I agree with Harris’ more extreme view (that parents hardly influence their kids). But the idea that my friends have a greater influence on me than my parents jives with my own experience.
My parents told me not to smoke. And yet, I distinctly remember the time I joined the circle of my friends in the woods behind our church to light up a Swisher Sweet. It wasn’t my idea, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to “be a wuss” (i.e., get rejected).
My parents didn’t push me to go to college, and yet because all of my friends were going to college, I wanted to as well. I didn’t want to get left behind. That’s seriously the main reason I went to college (not exaggerating).
Our kids’ friends determine their success
In the same way that my friends influenced my decision to go to college, a number of studies have shown that our kids’ friends influence their academic decisions and performance.
Researchers at the University of Oregon surveyed 1,200 middle schoolers about their three best friends. The researchers found that the kids whose friends were prone to misbehave ended up doing worse in school than kids whose friends performed well.
Another, smaller survey conducted by Hiroko Sayama of the State University of New York in Binghamton found similar results. Sayama surveyed 160 juniors in high school and found that if a student’s friends were generally ranked higher than they were, the student’s own class rank improved over the next year. The inverse was also generally true for students with friends ranked lower than they were.
If our kids’ friends influence them, what can we do?
All of this evidence points to the idea that our kids’ friends have incredible influence over them. It is a scary thought, really.
What happens if they get in with the wrong crowd? Does that mean they’re going to throw out all the hopes and dreams we have for them? Based on the evidence, it seems possible. But here’s the good news: There is something we can do about it.
We can tell them.
We can tell them that their friends will determine the direction and quality of their lives. (This quote, by the way, comes from one of my favorite teachers, Andy Stanley.)
As they grow up – when they’re in elementary, middle, and high school – we can literally tell them that their friends will determine the direction and quality of their life. We can empower them to choose great friends (and occasionally heed our own nudges and guidance, of course).
If you’ve never had the conversation with your son or daughter, tell them today. It may be one of the best lessons they ever learn.