Peer Pressure – Part 3: A Tug-of-War

Peer pressure truly does place students in a tug-of-war between parents, teachers, and friends. We will never be able to make peer influence disappear, nor would we want to. Meeting other children, crafting friendships, and learning the value of them is a vital part of a child’s growth and development. What we must do is harness peer influence so it is a benefit to our students rather something that diverts them from the purpose and values.

What we must strive for is the creation of a classroom environment—an education model and process—in which student relationships with their parents and  teachers are more highly valued than their relationships with their peers. It is all about whom a student is least willing to disappoint. We do this, not by diminishing the value of their friendships rather by enhancing the value of their relationships with us.

If confronted with the need to make a choice between disappointing a friend or letting down one’s parents and teachers, family and teachers must always come out on top.

When my own three children were kids, my wife and I worked hard to craft the kind of relationships where we were the ones our kids were least willing to disappoint. On many occasions, we would get a call, about midway through our son or daughters’ nights out, telling us the that their friends wanted to do something or go to a place or event of which they thought we would disapprove. Their call was to ask if it was okay. We knew our children well enough to recognize, by the tone of their voices and the phrasing of their questions, whether they wanted us to say “yes” or “no!” Such relationships do not just happen; they must be crafted.

A craft is something at which one works, relentlessly; learning, improving, growing. Physicians practice medicine, which is an uncertain science. They work and study, diligently, to develop their craft, which is their ability to apply their knowledge of this uncertain science to respond to the unique requirements of their patients. We often hear actors speak of developing their craft; in fact, it is what all artists do. Both parenting and teaching are crafts that must be honed over time.

There are no perfect parents nor are their perfect teachers. Neither are there perfect parenting or teaching solutions and approaches. Every child is different and what works for one child may not work for another. One of the fundamental flaws of the existing education process is that it limits the ability of teachers to differentiate. It is a “one-size-fits-all” regimen in which even the best teachers are limited in their ability to adapt what they do and how much time they spend to respond to the unique needs students of a diverse population.

Too often, in this writer and parent’s opinion, too many boundaries are ambiguous.

While subbing in a high school classroom, a dozen or so years ago, I asked a student why she wasn’t trying to work on an assignment. “Don’t you care about doing well?” I asked.

She responded, “why should I care if my teacher doesn’t care?”

The essence of the ensuing conversation was that this student believed the reason her teacher never pushed her to try was because she did not care.

Kids need boundaries because there is safety in those lines of demarcation. The job of parents and teachers is to manage those boundaries within which kids are free to make mistakes without fear of losing our love; they are free to have bad days and still be loved. What they must not be free to do is “not try.”

Our children will test us, of course, but we mistake this as rebellion or trying to get away with something. When children test our boundaries, it is our commitment to love and protect them that is being tested, which is why it is so vital that we pass the tests our children administer to us.

The more confident our children/students become, that our commitment is non-negotiable, the healthier their self-esteem. People often ask, when do we give them more freedom and responsibility—which are, of course, two sides of the same coin. Again, our answer is the same; there is no “one answer.” Kids are unique children of creation. Knowing such things and understanding the needs of each child flows from the wisdom we have gained through the daily practice of our craft as parents and teachers.

The bottom line, however, is that we allow them to expand the scope of their freedom based on their demonstrated responsibility. The extension of boundaries is a reaffirmation of the esteem with which we hold our children and students. When extended boundaries have been earned by their acceptance of responsibility, it increases the esteem in which they hold themselves.

We were surprised the first few times it happened, but what often occurred after those late evening calls from our kids, was that the groups of each of our children’s friends would end up not doing  whatever it was that had been suggested. It was as if they all wanted to appear bold and adventuresome when, all the while, they were hoping to hit a safety net, even if it was someone else’s. After all, no one wants to be the one who looks weak to their peers. The operative question is: “who are they most willing to disappoint.”

What we need in our schools and classrooms is an education process that is structured to empower teachers to practice their craft. It is a model that places its focus on and provides the time for the development of enduring relationships centered on empathy. It is empathy that helps us understand their unique needs and personalities. These are the types of relationships that children will be unwilling to place at risk in the face of negative peer pressure.

What happens as a by-product of such relationships between parents and their children and teachers and their students is that the quality of the relationships between both siblings and classmates improves. To be sure their will be internal squabbles; there are no utopias. We will have crafted an atmosphere, however, where “relationships” are a focal point of the classroom environment around which all else revolves.

Creating such relationships takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort to establish and sustain. In the existing education process, relationships are not at the top of the priority list and, therefore, rarely do teachers have the time and opportunity to make every pupil a priority, which is probably why the teacher in the above example stopped pushing the young woman to try.

The Hawkins Model© is designed to give teachers both the expectation and the wherewithal to give each child what they so desperately want and need: love, safety, time and attention, and the freedom to make mistakes without risking harm or rejection.

As the quality of the relationships between teachers and students evolves, it is only a matter of time until positive peer influencers begin to emerge, and their number begins to grow. We end up with classrooms where students look out for and help each other and where the likelihood that kids who are different will be harassed or bullied diminishes, greatly. In a relationship-centered classroom, kids learn it is okay to be different.

When  parents, even the most skeptical and mistrusting, begin to observe their children changing in positive ways, a teacher’s opportunities to pull those parents and guardians into powerful, positive partnerships, sprout, profusely. The outcome is a positive learning environment where every child can develop their unique potential.

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