If you can’t win them … invite more! – Can parents soften the influence from the peer group?
How is it possible that kids who don’t have a chance to attend the best schools or grow up in “not so nice” neighborhoods sometimes manage to “escape” from the grip of their environment and grow into adulthood to be regarded as well-mannered, successful, respected, etc? The opposite may happen as well — most parents would say it happens way too often — but the question of going from bad to good has a less obvious answer than what the common sense may suggest for the good to bad direction.
I find many people confusing the notion of peer pressure and peer group influence when it comes to the question what shapes their kids’ personality. They’re too quick to jump to the obvious conclusion: the kids go to school and this is where they socialize with their peers, so it is this interaction and pressure to conform to fashions and accepted trends among the peers in their school that ultimately has the biggest influence to them. The accepted wisdom, then, suggests the answer is simple, in their early school age years, the kids are shaped by their schoolmates!
It’s compelling to extend the same line of reasoning to the cases where the kids spend a lot of time doing activities outside school — like spending lots of time “on the street” with the neighbourhood kids, training for a certain sport for many hours each day, spending huge amount of time on Facebook and similar. To make the answer work for those case instead of referring to the school peers, we can just point at the peers in these other groups as the ones shaping the kids in question. If only this was so easy — good parenting would simply turn into a research to find the best school to send your kids to, or the best sports club to sign them into! While parents do this (including myself here too 😉 the answer is unfortunately not that simple.
Taking a wider view, it becomes harder to apply the same answer to all cases one can identify. What about those kids that go from growing up say in a technology backward or even averse community to become leaders in top technology organizations? What about those kids attending a technical school but move to writing a best-selling fictional novel? What about the kids in my initial question who started with little or low quality education and maybe even had very tough life in their neighborhood as kids but later turn out to be say top scientists or have a successful career in academia?
The reason why these examples are difficult to explain away by the influence of a particular group in the environment in which the kids grew up is because in none of them the obvious group didn’t seem to have been able to leave a lasting mark on the kids. On the contrary, the kids end up adopting behaviours which are in contrast to those groups! To understand why is this so and to let me elaborate how I think parents can benefit from this understanding let’s look briefly at the notion of group pressure.
The tricky question is identifying what the group looks like, i.e. which types of groups can one belong to? To answer it, we need to make a distinction between “belonging” to a group (as if being somehow accepted/acknowledged as part of it by other members) and “identifying” with a group (as if feeling somehow related to what one perceives the group represents). This distinction makes it possible to state how the group shapes our behavior: It is not the process of belonging that shapes our personality, but rather the process of identification with it! This is an emotional state that drives our behavior unconsciously to match that of the target group — it is not unlike carrying the flag for your country on the independence day!
I want you to ponder this for a few seconds — what shapes our kids is not the group they belong to under the current circumstances (e.g. the neighborhood we choose to raise them in), but the group they identify with (which is less likely to change even when we drastically change their environment). Think about it — identity is an emotional state that sticks with our kids for a long time, if not their whole life. Belonging doesn’t need to involve emotions and can easily change many times over the years.
What makes it difficult to understand this distinction and the influence it can have on shaping the kids’ behavior is the fact that commonly, most people identify with the group they belong to. I guess this is nowhere else so transparent as with preschool age kids — I’ve experienced many tear-ending episodes with my older daughter when her “best” friend, whom she just met for the first time on some playground, had to leave home with her/his parents and she already missed him/her.
As a side note, if you happen to listen to the conversation between two preschoolers or early school age kids meeting for the first time, you’ll find a lot of comparison of the type I can do this, can you?, I have that, how about you?, etc. They’re also astonishingly receptive to newcomers in their groups, unlike older kids. I wonder if that is their way of checking if commonalities can be identified and an ad hoc group can be formed or expanded on the spot 😉
What’s more interesting is that the group identity is not constrained with the real groups of people the kids’ hang out with — they can also be virtual groups formed from characters in books, cartoons, movies, etc. — the kids (everyone actually) can readily identify with characters they never physically met or are not even real people. Nowadays, it is even possible for a kid to identify with one or more people they interact only through Facebook, even if they’re surrounded with hundreds of kids at school or other places they spend a lot of time together.
With real groups they’re more likely to identify with other kids (especially of the same sex and similar age), while with the imaginary or virtual groups, they can identify with anyone! Actually, in the virtual case, a group can be formed by our kids identifying with just a single person from the imaginary or virtual world. This is true in the real world too, as my daughter’s example shows, but as the kids age and move between schools or join clubs and other associations, more likely than not they’ll join existing groups instead of form their own.
Understanding how the group socialization works, opens two important questions! Can the parents turn this knowledge into a useful tool for them to increase the chances for their kids to identify with the “right” instead of the “wrong” group? Or even, can they increase the odds for their kid to form a group — which would suggest a strong sense of identity and belonging at the same time — instead of joining one? I would like to answer yes on both! 😉
Where do our kids get to know potential candidates for socializing and forming groups or picking out group candidates to join and potentially identify with? Pretty much everywhere where they can interact with other people for a longer period, especially kids of similar age! Therefore, providing various experiences where they can interact with those other kids is a potential tool for influencing their choices. The question is what kinds of experiences would make a difference?
I would not even dare say I have an answer, but I’d like to give this some thinking. Our group socialization facility exerts a pressure to identify with one or more groups by aligning our behavior with that of the most members of those groups. The question is, how would that facility deal with a case where the number of potential groups to identify with is bigger than what most kids commonly encounter (school, neighborhood, etc.)? I believe if we create ample opportunity for our kids to join many groups, the pressure to identify with one will dissipate as the kids will have hard time to choose one particular group.
If we do this with as diverse groups as possible, where it will be difficult to pick out common behavioral patterns, we might — I have to emphasize that this is a very slim chance, but still worth a try! — be able to turn the cards a bit and avoid the risk of our kids making only one choice and that choice to turn out wrong. I am pretty sure that someone with a statistical mind and insight into game theory or similar may be able to calculate the odds of failing in a single choice vs. multiple choices, but I am not one of them so I’ll try something else to explain why I think this approach can yield some results.
Assuming that there’s value for the kids’ in joining any of those groups and “maintaining” membership over time, they’ll be forced to deal with the two opposite forces — pressure to identify with one group and pressure to differ from the rest of the groups — a hard choice that may lead to an attempt to balance the membership in as many groups as possible. Of course, the genes, i.e. the part of the kids’ personality shaped by the nurture side will play a big role in making the behavioral choices and balancing between the multiple identities, so the parents will have to try their best to figure out what their kids may be inclined to and play on their potential strengths.
Even if the attempt to get your kids’ maintain multiple weaker identities as opposed to a single stronger sense of belonging, I find this idea having a side merit in the fact that the kids will get a chance to learn diversity and experience socialization in a full swing. This would help with the knowledge component I discussed in my previous article, falling into the social intelligence as well as potentially pragmatic wisdom categories.
Another opportunity parents may have is in trying to provide their kids with fertile ground to form their own group instead of joining one. This may be possible in various ways. For example, introducing them to strong characters they may get fascinated with and later turn into an idealization they would strive for is one interesting approach. Helping them learn some skills at a very early age that may be fashionable among the rest of the kids later on and then providing opportunities for the other kids to join your kids’ in activities involving such skills, thus giving them a chance to become seeds around whom a new group could be formed, is another approach worth a try.
Helping the kids’ create a group on their own sounds like a promising way to steer the group socialization in the direction we want, but is not bullet-proof. First, your “enemy” is likely not the other groups out there, but the genes themselves. You may be reacting to the personality shaped by the genes and thus failing to create new opportunities for socialization. Or you may be risking your kids to be identified by their peers as “outsiders” i.e. be pushed out by all the other kids instead of the other kids joining them in their new group. Then there’s the moral issue of putting your kid in a favorable leader position over the rest of their peers, etc.
If the last few issues worry you, consider this. We know very little about how the human personality is shaped, so the chances are my advice above won’t make a single difference for your kid. However, trying is still better than not as there are other benefits from implementing some of these ideas. I already mentioned the diversity and socialization aspects, but there is also the intrinsic sense of happiness we humans derive from our social interactions, there is the opportunity to learn about different cultures, there is the chance to build social networks that may prove valuable later in live when your kids e.g. enter the workforce, etc.
Even if we can’t predict if any of our attempts will make a difference, I think giving up should not be an option. Our kids are probably our most valuable legacy we leave in this world. Trying hard to help them get as much knowledge and understanding about that world is the least we can do about them. Even if they still continue to make their own choices without taking your advice into account, giving them the gift of experiences as early as possible will help them make more thoughtful choices, shaped by the interactions with other people involved in those experiences and hopefully enlightened by the knowledge of diversity and wider range of skills and interests to draw upon when meeting new people in their later lives.
Kids are born curios around the world around them. This is especially true about the people around them as many psychologists would point out to the fact that our social relationships are central to our being. We should feed that curiosity by giving them a chance to explore the world together with as many other kids and even people of all age groups as possible!