86. Peer Pressure

There are things you’d like to do all the time, but you don’t do them in public. And things you never want to do, but you do them in public. There may even be behaviors you rule out entirely in both public and private, but you harbor secret fantasies. And the reason? It’s against the law, or at least it flies in the face of one of society’s behavior codes. It just isn’t done.
That’s called peer pressure. Hammurabi’s Code, the Constitution of the United States, and all the other things written and said to tell us what to do all rely on peer pressure to keep us in line. And if the pressure is effectively applied, those who don’t yield to it are arrested, disbarred, impeached, court martialed, etc. You might say we take peer pressure pretty seriously.
But somehow, when we see our children giving in to peer pressure, it often rubs us the wrong way. I am appalled by some of the things I see children do “because everybody else does,” or not do because “only geeks do that.” Like most adults I know, I try to get children to resist the temptation to follow the crowd – to stand on their own two feet and do what they think is right.
It’s important to me, on several levels, to be sure children develop a way to make decisions that are in keeping with their principles. I was arrested once for protesting against a government policy I thought was immoral, and I’m proud of my decision to disobey authorities. Society was telling me to leave the immoral policy be, and I was saying no. I was scared. This was bigger than wearing a button-down sweater when everyone else was wearing pull-overs. And I’m not sure I would have had the courage to participate in the protest if I hadn’t had lots of peers protesting with me.
Peer pressure plays a legitimate and important role. It may bother us, because children start out thinking of us adults as the ones to please. It’s hard to give that up. And we hope some of what children learn from us will stay with them always – their moral principles, their sensitivity to other people. But we have to be ready to accept that they may pierce pieces of their epidermis that we wouldn’t pierce, to make a place for jewelry. Everyone else is.

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