Combating The Influence Of Peers In Our Children's Lives

My daughter came home from Kindergarten the other day, slicing the air with her palms, kicking the air and yelling "HIIIIIIIIIII-YAH!" Turning to me, she smiled and said with a gleam in her eye, "I'm going to 'Karate' the table, Mom." As I have never introduced her to the idea of "Karate-ing" anything, it was clear that peer influence had begun.

For most of us, friendships are reciprocal. We influence and are influenced by friends. Our children are no different. As they make friends at school, their behavior is influenced by these friends. This is to be expected, even welcomed. The broader the range of peers, the greater the adaptability to different social situations.

But peer influence has a dark side as well. Many parents harbor fears that one of their children's "friends" may be exerting more influence than they feel comfortable with. Most parents would prefer that they, not peers, exert the major influence in their children's lives. For this to be possible, however, parents must know some fundamentals about self-esteem.

In their article "On Kids and Confidence" published by Childcraft, Garber, Garber and Spizman describe the influences upon a child's self-esteem as taking the shape of a pyramid with four levels. In this paradigm, a parent's unconditional love for their child forms the foundation of the pyramid. The second level is composed of the child's daily accomplishments. Level three involves the feedback which parents give to their children, and finally, the fourth level, or top of the pyramid, is what a child's peers think of him or her.

When visualized this way, it is easy to see that the broader the foundation of the pyramid, the smaller the top of the pyramid is proportionally. Thus, if a parent can create a large enough base of unconditional love, peer influence will have less weight in a child's life than if the foundation of the pyramid is narrow.

With infants and small children, most parents have little trouble expressing unconditional love. However, things may change when a child enters school. Upon entering school, a child begins to be judged by the school "system" on the basis of his accomplishments. In order to feel involved, parents may take on that judgmental attitude, believing that involvement and concern means judging their child on the same basis that the "system" does. Statements like "He's great at math, we just need to get his spelling up to par" send the message to the child that his parents are judging him based upon his behavior, accomplishments or actions, rather than upon WHO he is as a whole person. Suddenly, the child begins to get the message that his parent's love is conditional -- and the base of the self-esteem pyramid becomes smaller.

So how do we convey unconditional love to our children and broaden the base of the pyramid?

The first way is to listen. Children who feel listened to come away feeling that what they had to say was worthwhile. Believing this, they feel good about themselves.

But listening is not necessarily easy. It is a skill, and not one that most people are good at. So how do you listen?

Listening is more than being quiet and HEARING. In his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen R. Covey says that if he had to choose the single most important principle he's learned it would be to "SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND, THEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD."

Listening means trying to UNDERSTAND our children.

We do this by first acknowledging our children's feelings. Children often express themselves in a kind of code (i.e., "I hate you" really means "I feel angry"), so listening may mean watching for feelings as reflected in a child's facial expressions or body language. To convey this recognition, instead of jumping in and saying "You don't really hate Susan. Hate's not a nice word," parents must look for the feelings reflected in the statement. Acknowledgment of those feelings means saying something like: "You seem really angry at Susan."

After acknowledging the feelings, we must empathize. In other words, DON'T offer advice (whether it's sound or not). Say instead "That must be really hard."

Then, in order to continue to convey understanding, we must allow children to come up with solutions to their own problems. This doesn't mean abandoning them. Many parents have used the line: "Fight your own battles." Children don't know HOW to fight their own battles. Children need support, not abandonment. To offer support, work with your child to find a solution, without being pushy. Say something like "Do you think it would help if you ______?" Then be willing to accept an answer of "no." While this may seem frustrating, children often need to reject an idea and think about it for a while before ultimately using that very idea.

After listening, a second way to broaden the foundation of the self-esteem pyramid and reduce peer influence is to allow children appropriate independence. Overprotection sends the message to the child that you don't regard him as capable of handling things. This does not help to build a foundation of good self-esteem.

A third way to broaden the base of unconditional positive regard is to respect your children. While many parents start out respecting their children, as it becomes necessary to set more limits, and as children begin to test those limits, parents sometimes become impatient. While they may feel respectful, they have difficulty acting that way. There are three questions parents can ask themselves that keeps them acting respectful:

1) Would I treat my spouse this way?

2) Would I treat my best friend this way?

3) Would I want to be treated this way?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," the parent should reexamine the way in which they are addressing their child. A respectful tone of voice, even during discipline, will get you further than sarcasm or threats and build the child's self-esteem as well.

When parents have established a broad base of unconditional positive regard, they have yet another opportunity to influence self-esteem and perhaps counteract any negative peer influence that might occur. This opportunity occurs in the third level of the pyramid, and is determined by the feedback which parents give to their children.

Much of the feedback we give to our children is either instructional or corrective. We're either telling them what to do, how to do it, or what they did wrong and how to do it better next time. While instruction and correction are a necessary part of parenting, and it is our job as parents to teach our children, we must do so while building their self-esteem, not whittling away at it.

The easiest way to gauge the feedback we give our children is to ask ourselves: "What do I want my children to remember about my interactions with them?" Do you want them to remember you as a "nag," or as someone who was always difficult to satisfy? Or would it be better if they remembered you as someone who accepted their best efforts, even if they weren't quite perfect. As you consider this question, it's important to remember that your tone of voice plays an important role in what your child "hears" in your feedback. Tone of voice is remembered long after the words are gone.

A second influence on the feedback that we give our children is our expectations of them. It is extremely important that we work on having positive, rather than negative, expectations. Many parents today recognize that negative labels (such as "accident prone") become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Used often enough, the child will become "accident prone." Many parents, however, fail to realize that just as children live up to negative expectations, they also live up to positive expectations. To have positive expectations work for self-esteem, you must know what it is reasonable to expect from your children. The best way to do this is to buy a book on developmental levels appropriate for your child's age. When our children are infants, most of us keep a reference book around for the changes that are occurring. Once the child reaches school age, however, parents drop this practice. But developmental levels are not restricted to infancy. Children pass through different stages all the way up to and through adolescence, and knowledge of these stages is critical for parents who are interested in building self-esteem. Once you've determined the stage your child is in, set realistic goals for her and keep your expectations positive about her achievement of those goals. It's important, however, to balance this attitude of "You can do it!" with an acceptance of her possible failure. An attitude of "Next time (or soon) you'll be able to do it" helps.

When you do give feedback to your child, be specific. Get rid of "You're a good girl /boy" This statement doesn't allow children to know what behavior they should repeat or eliminate. When they do misbehave, it leads to the notion that they're a "Bad girl/ boy," instead of helping them recognize that they made a mistake which you expect them to correct in the future. Again, it's important not to attach "self-worth" to behavior. Saying "good" or "bad" girl/boy, is a judgment call on the child as a person, rather than an attempt to correct misbehavior. In addition to being the wrong kind of feedback to enhance self-esteem, it also violates the first premise of UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD that we talked about earlier.

Rather than say "good boy/girl," it's more helpful to say specifically what you like about your child's behavior. For example "I like it when you clean up your toys before getting your games out," or "Thank you for putting your dishes in the sink. I really appreciate it," or even simply "Great job!" Likewise, instead of "bad boy/girl", talk specifically about the BEHAVIOR you want corrected. Say "I feel uncomfortable when the toys are all over the place. I'd like you to pick them up before getting your games out," or "I feel upset when you neglect your homework. I'd like you to finish it before you watch TV."

With these simple techniques, and a little practice, parents should be capable of diminishing their concerns about the influence of peers in their children's lives. Because parents have the unique opportunity of enhancing their child's self-esteem on two levels, and because the very foundation of the pyramid is under the parent's control, peer influence can be lessened to a manageable level, with the parents being the primary influence upon their children.