Peer pressure has gotten a bad rap. When we think about peer pressure, we focus almost exclusively on the detrimental effects of negative peer pressure. We have forgotten that peer pressure is also one of the strongest shapers of positive social and academic behavior. As adults we use it to push ourselves to the next level. From workout buddies to peer-reviewed academic journals, peer pressure is a powerful motivating tool.
Over the weekend my sons were playing Minecraft with some friends and one child decided to destroy structures built by the others. The peer pressure correction was swift. The other kids worked together first to disable his character by “killing” him then, when that didn’t work, they banned him from the server for a week. The peer pressure and consequences for his anti-social behavior were swift, effective, and temporary. His friends even comforted him after the banning. They reminded him it was for a short period of time and let him know that although they understood how much fun it is to blow things up in Minecraft, he needed to restrain himself if he wanted to play with them.
Navigating peer group rules develops executive function. it also teaches children how to behave in society in a way that is difficult for adults to mimic. As children get older, their view of themselves and their place in the world is increasingly defined by how they see themselves in their peer groups. Are they the clown, the smart one, the loner, or are they lucky enough to have a peer group that allows them to be a multidimensional, complete person?
While we cannot choose their friends, we can stack the deck in favor of more positive peer interactions by getting our children into academic and extracurricular programs that emphasize acceptance, hard work, respect, and kindness. One of the huge benefits of getting your child into “the good” school is not the staff or facilities. It is the other students. Surround your child with high achievers that value academics and your child will study more to fit in.
Finding a positive peer group is especially important for highly and exceptionally gifted children. These children are capable of academic achievements above and beyond average kids their age and it is their intellectual peers that will pull them to excel. Of course, it is important to help your child find their true peers. If your 15-year-old is working on cancer research, then his intellectual peers are not regular 8th and 9th graders. Yet it isn’t all about academics. Gifted children’s sometimes volatile passion and asynchronous development can make it difficult for them to feel fully comfortable in a regular, age-mate peer group. By giving them opportunities to develop friendships with gifted children of various ages, they are more fully understood and accepted.
Here are some rules for evaluating positive peer pressure.
- The pressure is focused on modifying behavior, not changing the person. In other words, the uniqueness of each individual in the group is valued and accepted.
- The group applies pressure consistently and even-handedly to all members of the peer group without one child being relentlessly singled out.
- The consequences for failing the peer group’s expectations are temporary and not emotionally or physically scarring.
- The pressure and resulting consequences are not acted out publicly. There is no record of it on Facebook, YouTube, other social media, or the Internet in general.
- The peer group moves on and past mistakes are forgiven and forgotten.
- You, as a parent, agree with the values and goals the peer group emphases.
The right kind of peer pressure encourages all of us to push ourselves harder than we would otherwise and helps us reach new goals. One of the most important jobs for parents of gifted kids is making sure they are surrounded by helpful peer groups. Then we can sit back and let the positive pressure do its magic.