Kids and Peer Pressure

W and a little friend

Last weekend, W succumbed to peer pressure for the first time (that I know of). See, she’s been walking pretty well for about a month now, but she’s had herself convinced that she has to hold my hand to do it, even though I can tell she’s not relying upon me for help. Last weekend, though, we went the birthday party of one of W’s little friends, and there were lots of toddlers there. She started off walking the way she always has — holding my hand — but I could see her watching the other little ones. Oh, I could almost hear her thinking, is that what we’re doing now? And she let go of my hand and started walking on her own.

This got me thinking about two different things. First, even though W is closest emotionally to her daddy and me, she clearly identifies with other toddlers. After all, it wasn’t watching US walk solo that led her to take the plunge. Used to be, she thought she was a part of me (or I was a part of her); somewhere along the line, that changed, and I’m not sure precisely when. She’s clearly her own little person now, and what amazes me is that she knows she’s a little person. Not a big person, not a dog, not a unique life form. A little human. How amazing is it that she’s figured that out, even though she’s never been explicitly told, “You are a small human, and these other toddlers are also small humans. You are like them.”

The other thing W’s experience made me think about is how commonly we associate the term peer pressure with something negative. You know, the whole all the cool kids are doing it phenomenon, where the “it” is something they shouldn’t be doing, like having sex, or smoking, or consuming entire tablespoons of cinnamon at once.*

*Yes, this is apparently the new(ish) thing. And while I would be somewhat remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s the (remote) potential that trying to swallow a whole tablespoon of cinnamon could cause choking, lung irritation, or suffocation, I will say that as stupid, peer pressure-related behavior goes, this sort of amuses me. And for added parental convenience, engaging in The Cinnamon Challenge is its own punishment.

Anyway, humans are social creatures, so it doesn’t really make sense to talk about peer pressure as though it’s limited to isolated incidences, or to adolescence. In fact, much of the behavior in which we engage on a daily basis and throughout life is determined by social pressure to act in particular ways. Even within the confines of the more traditional definition, peer pressure exerts a positive influence on kids and teens just as much as or more than it exerts a negative influence. Among the various findings that demonstrate the positive power of peer persuasion (hooray for alliteration): “popular” kids feel peer pressure to perform in school and engage with family (Clasen et al); peer monitors are effective at helping to maintain order in the classroom (Carden Smith et al); peer-led education improves attitudes about asthma and compliance with treatment protocols (Gibson et al); peer pressure pushes adolescents to conform with socially-acceptable behavior (Urberg et al).

A major task of W’s infancy was learning that she had a body (and how to control it). I see very clearly now that as she enters toddlerhood, she’s learning that she has a self, a personhood, an identity that goes beyond the corporeal. Watching her develop a personal image and start to identify peers is delightful from a maternal perspective. From a scientific perspective, too, it’s fascinating. It’s amazing to me that we (humans) are at once so caught up in our own identities and the desire to stand out as individuals, and yet are so shaped — literally from our first steps — by observing and imitating the behavior of others.

 

What aspects of social development do you find fascinating?

 

References:

Carden Smith et al. Positive peer pressure: the effects of peer monitoring on children’s disruptive behavior. J Appl Behav Anal. 1984 Summer;17(2):213-27.

Clasen et al. The multidimensionality of peer pressure in adolescence. J Youth Adoles. 1985; 14(6):451-68.

Gibson et al. Peer-led asthma education for adolescents: impact evaluation. J Adolesc Health. 1998 Jan;22(1):66-72.

Urberg et al. Peer influence in adolescent cigarette smoking. Addict Behav. 1990;15(3):247-55.

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