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Q. "Recently my 9-year-old son has started doing whatever his friends tell him to do. For example, his 8-year-old cousin persuaded him to ride his bike over to her house, about two and a half miles away. They had to cross a main street and everything. Then the other day my neighbor discovered my son and one of his friends climbing through her bathroom window. They were apparently breaking into her house. When I confronted my son, he told me his friend had suggested climbing through the window, and he was just trying to help him out. My son's inability to stand up to peer pressure is obviously becoming a problem. What can I do to prevent this behavior? If he continues down this path, he will surely be out of hand by the time he's 18."
A. First, let's clear up the notion of peer pressure. Once kids reach elementary school, they develop a strong desire to connect with similar-aged playmates and companions. Family members continue to keep an important place in their minds and hearts, but children find themselves drawn toward their peers more than ever before.
Often parents think that peer pressure involves a group of kids who lure their child into inappropriate behavior. That description is only partly true; peer pressure is a broader concept. Inside every child is a strong desire to belong to a larger group. So kids look around to see which group appeals to them and which group they'll most likely fit into.
For some reason your son seems drawn toward negative peer influences rather than positive ones. So your first job is to help him find his place among kids who will engage in purposeful activities rather than dangerous, destructive, or damaging ones.
Second, realize that during middle childhood, kids seek adventure as a sort of test of themselves in the real world. Your son's unfortunate episodes -- the bike ride and the break-in -- represent unsafe and unsavory adventures.
When kids have the opportunity to embark on simple adventures -- like riding their bike to the nearby store or building a fort in the woods without adult supervision -- they feel competent and independent. They are learning the skills they need to succeed away from Mom and Dad.
Parents today are nervous about allowing such adventures, mainly because the world has become more unsafe and complex. So your challenge is to assist him in having safe adventures. Doing so will fill his current need to competently explore and maneuver around your community, beyond the confines of your home and street.
For example, if your son asks to go to a nearby park, see if you can find a way for him to go. Make sure he travels with two buddies and that he is away for no more than an hour. Have him take your cell phone and his watch, and show him a place near the park where he can go for help if needed, like a library, community center, fire station, or a family's home.
These activities are essential to your child's development, and you can set him up to succeed by setting clear parameters for his adventures. Limiting the time he is away from home, ensuring he is in the company of responsible kids, and giving him a backup plan in case something goes wrong are all things you can do to ensure his well-being.
You can also help your son develop the skills he needs to stand up to peer pressure. Have an open and frank discussion with your son about the dangers he could encounter when he's without adult supervision. Remind him that he can say no, and that deciding to go against the group could often be essential to his safety and health. Depending on your son's maturity level and that of his friends, it might be time to discuss things like smoking, drinking, and drugs. After all, these vices are the next step down the peer pressure path. You can give your son the tools he needs to make smart decisions despite peer pressure.
Finally, help your son find friends and adventure that will take him in a positive peer direction. Scouts, religious youth groups, community centers, and camps are a great resource for this. You might also look into your local Boys and Girls Club. This organization provides for the same needs of middle childhood -- adventure and peers -- in a safe and supervised setting.