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Peer Pressure: Positive or Negative?

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Peer pressure is an inevitable part of growing up, or so we are told. Before we can even begin to ask if it is a positive or negative force in the world we must first ask: what is peer pressure? How do we arrive at a peer pressure definition that we can all agree on? Peer pressure has to do with influence from the outside world which asks us to step outside of our comfort zone and into that of a group. In short, to abandon our norms for those of our peers.

In most discussions or media pieces we come across, peer pressure is one of those nagging buzzwords. It is often seen as inevitably bad. The all too common stereotype is that of the proffered cigarette, or the utterance of the phrase “everyone is doing it” beneath the bleachers. This is of course peer pressure, but more accurately a single form of the phenomenon. This is the crystallization of peer pressure as the enemy.

More accurately it is something that goes both ways, as recent discussions begin to reveal.

Peer pressure isn’t always something that asks us to do things like drink or smoke. It isn’t even always pushing us to do things that rebel against parental or scholastic advice. It can influence children to want to achieve higher marks in school, or to excel in sports. Given the right circumstances it can even instill lasting values. For instance: if you are going to hog the ball we won’t pass it to you. We’re all team players here and hope you will be too.

Of course, there is a fine line here as with any issue affecting children and teens. On one end is performing at your best and on the other is setting unrealistic expectations. When feeling pressure to do well children must always feel the pressure is to do their best and not conform to some ideal they cannot realistically achieve.

Some of this depends on the quality of the peers in question. A child surrounded by good influences will receive positive pressures. This is where parents can help. Parents should place emphasis on being involved with children and knowing their friends. By being more actively aware of the guiding forces in their children’s’ lives, parents can become empowered to move beyond the broad strokes and focus on the individuals. There is far more value in being able to say what John and Jane are like than what “those kids these days” are.

Peer Pressure vs Social Influence

Whether influences are positive, negative or neutral it is also important to note that there is a balance that needs to be struck between caring too much and not caring enough about what others think. The good side of caring is empathy. Children, and adults for that matter, who can assess the wants, needs and opinions of others learn to have intuition for their needs. Ignoring peer opinions on the other hand can have an impact on the opposite end of the spectrum. The bad side of not caring is detachment. Children who simply ignore the opinions of others at all times can end up isolating themselves and become ill prepared for those times in life when it is not only advantageous, but necessary to consider the feelings of others.

As always the answer lies somewhere in between.

When it comes to peer pressure, taking a hard line of “no” denies children the chance to learn to think critically. By telling them to never go along with the group we may do as much damage as if they always went with the group. The issue at hand is helping children to learn how to asses each matter individually.

We must bring awareness to the fact that there is pressure coming from different sources in most matters in our lives. Once we pull back this veil we can see each influence for what it is. Then we make active decisions based on our own needs. Sometimes we will end up going along with the group and other times against it. The key is that we always act with open eyes and consider the interests of all involved.

This is far from a simple issue, which makes it all the more important for children and parents to tackle it together. If we can agree that always saying yes, and “just saying no” can both be harmful, then the solution lies in balance and objectivity. Such issues are always handled better when we work with others who care about us.

There is also far more family growth that occurs when we continually turn to each other for support and discussion about right, wrong and outside pressure rather than just simply laying down a policy of saying “yes” to this and “no” to that without meaningful discussion.

The best outcome will come from actively involved parents and children who are comfortable sharing what is really going on. By setting a precedent of involvement and ensuring that sharing is not just acceptable but encouraged; we as families can know each other better than any of us could know ourselves alone.

Thinking critically about peer influences leads to children who grow up learning to be part of a team or group as well as think independently. It may not be as easy or simple as a “just say no” policy, but in the end it is far more rewarding.

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