In today's dangerous world, kids are experimenting younger and there is much more to protect our children from than the sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll of yesteryear. A look at ways in which parents can set their children free from peer pressure without inducing the "mother smother".
A toddler wriggled relentlessly in his mother’s weary arms. Through the corner of my eye, I watched her scrape up just enough tired energy to remind him that he couldn’t always get his own way. An older woman came along and joined us on the bench at the bus stop. She smiled at this spectacle, knowingly – in that way your elders do, when they’ve already been somewhere you’re now at. Musing aloud, she suddenly muttered, ‘they break your arms when they’re young, and your hearts when they’re older!’
It was clear that she’d been there. She’d experienced the frustration, the anger, the sadness, the sense of failure. She knew what it was to be prepared to die for her children, and the passion with which you so desperately try to protect them from their own foolish ways. I wondered if it was her own children that had lost themselves their freedom, their sanity, their lives, or just their self-belief: if it was her own silent prayers that had gone unheard.
Peer pressure’s a funny thing. It’s something we all experience to different degrees, yet, once our children are on the receiving end of it, we have no idea how to deal with it! Most of us know what it is on a superficial level: that time in children’s lives – normally in the teenage years – when they and their friends, together, know more than their parents ever could! They wake up one morning and realize how comparatively self-sufficient they have become, and decide that they can now be independent. They begin to question, or even thwart most of what they’ve been taught, and come up with their own ideas and values. Then comes that blessed day when they note that their friends are also undergoing a very similar metamorphosis! They are now part of a movement – one that dominates every household and is driven by the mish-mash of a divine wisdom that parents just cannot comprehend! Some get carried away by pretensions of leadership, and others by visions of acceptability or popularity. Either way, the influence they have on each other can become very intense. Strange thing is, most young people won’t readily admit to being victims of peer pressure:
"Yeah, some people are misled because they don’t want their friends to think they’re boring and that, but I’ve got my own mind". Whatever! Do you believe these wise words of the 15-year-old I spoke to?
Maybe, this phenomenon of peer pressure throws us because we don’t stop for long enough to think about what’s really going on. All we see is what our children are doing, and in every generation the antics of the youth seem worse than those of the previous generation. There was a time when teenagers were satisfied to smoke a fag, take a sneaky sip of alcohol and dig around until they found, and could drool over, Daddy’s porn magazines. Nowadays that’s basic! They do all that, plus smoke spliffs, pop pills, snort powders and tell much more lies than we used to. Some even explore robbery, shooting and killing people. In regards to their sexual adventures, well, they do text sex, internet sex, MSN sex, or real sex! And equipped with their own mobiles, MSN accounts, ‘youth-speak,’ and let out to roam, they have more than enough scope to pursue their errant interests and make mischief. Whoever it was that said ‘the youth need protection from themselves’ had the right idea! But can parents feasibly be expected to monitor or control all these different exposures?
We have to ask if it’s actually peer pressure or parent pressure! They’re all stuck in a quandary! Parents are petrified as they wonder to what degree they should allow their children to explore and express their pinings; they’re never sure, for longer than a moment, that they’re making the right decision – it always feels like a gamble. On the one hand, those honest folk amongst us feel some sympathy for their wayward offspring because they remember that same stage so clearly in their own lives. But they don’t know whether their children will take their explorations as far as they themselves did, or as far as that son or daughter they remember hearing about – that one that’s now mentally ill, in jail, disillusioned on some street corner, or even six feet under. So while our children get carried away in their deeds, parents go mad with their fears. Mums and dads begin to consider the value of their own parents’ reactions, their own reminiscent indulgences and conclude that they are indeed confused. It’s a crazy, crazy time for all!
Is it because peer pressure is a new problem? No. Even the age-old Bible implies familiarity with the concept; in the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son,’ the young man demands his fortune from his father and decides to go it alone. Against his better judgement, his father grants him his wish. He squanders every penny in his pursuit of freedom and ends up penniless and living in squalor. Before too long, he returns home humble and penitent, and his father greets him with the love he had always carried for him in his heart. Herein, there are lessons for parents, children and everyone else!
The truth is, as human beings, we are all naturally free-spirited. We’re born with spirits that are wild and seem uncouth, and adults use the process of socialization to stamp it out of us. Look back and see your children when they were very small – they’d sing, dance or scream their heads off wherever they were. Through our admonitions to behave and be still, they learn that there’s a time and a season for each of our different emotions, and subsequently, the fierce tide of their spirit subsides. As we grow, we tussle with our need to be free, constantly making demands that are met with rebuttals. It’s as though we suffer from an envy of the freedom our parents seem to enjoy, and the older we get, the more difficult it becomes to be patient. The hypocrisy that we see from our parents gets harder to swallow – if they can swear, smoke and have late nights, why can’t we? Our level of intellectuality seems similar to theirs, our bodies have developed to look like theirs: that fierce tide, that’s our spirit, begins to rise again! But children, in their inexperience, fail to realize that the fundamental difference between themselves and their parents is their lack of experience. And that’s something they can only understand once they become experienced. Hence, the onslaught of the difficult years.
And all the time we battle against the System. The System despises free spirits. It urges us to prepare our children for a life-long commitment to being controlled by schools, work places and governments. They’re shipped off to schools, where they’re herded in like cattle, and you’re out working so hard to make ends meet. Poor you! You come in tired, while you’re kids are bubbling with energy. You let them play out, and think you’re having a break. In the meantime, it’s not long before you don’t know who they’re hanging with, where they are or what they’re doing. And, trust me, in this choice-driven, materialistic age, they’re doing lots of things! And when they can’t agree with their parents, they turn to their peers, and then their needs to be accepted are met, and all their views are sanctioned.
For parents, the disappointment that can set in, if it goes unchecked, can be shattering. Then, when others start expressing that sense of disillusionment in your child, that’s heart-breaking! Then the school barely stops short of criminalizing him, and you feel yourself tiring of your own flesh and blood. That’s when words like ‘inattentive’ and ‘neglectful’ begin to spring to mind. But it’s quite wrong to feel alone. Talking about your woes as freely as you can will make you feel less isolated as you see how many others are going through the same thing. You’ll see what a natural process it all is. You’ll also find yourself crying, perhaps, but also, you’re sure to laugh as you attempt to rationalize your most irrational moments. What’s more, someone’s bound to remind you that you’re doing your best under the constraints that you have to endure. And my goodness, you really need to hear that once in a while!
A final word of caution for all. Parents: when your children come of age, set them free. We can’t hold on to them forever or continue to view everything as a reflection of our own failings. Any honest parent can look back and point to things that they could have done better; that’s just the wisdom of hindsight – that rampant beast that gives us all the answers only after the event! As the father did in ‘The Prodigal Son,’ let them know you’ll be there as and when they need you. Remind them of all they’ve been taught, and that they must be responsible with their freedom – it’s either that or they’ll lose it. And remember, if you give up on her, there’s no conceivable reason why she shouldn’t give up on herself. Children: understand the role of a parent - to protect, guide and prepare you to survive the workings of the System, not the way it should be, but the way it is! In your pursuit to be free, don’t get it too twisted. Don’t rebel against everything your parents have taught you; find the things which are fundamentally and universally right, embrace them, and carry them in your heart, always! Always listen to your experiences and those with experience. Everyone: your spirit is divine and naturally free. Don’t be too hard on yourselves, or each other. Realize the power of forgiveness, and be ready to give it to yourself, or anyone else, as a gift. Learn your lessons and always have the courage to make a new choice. Remember the words of the singer and songwriter, India Arie:
"You never know where life is gonna take you, and you can’t change where you’ve been, but today I have the opportunity to choose."
1st May 2008