The Primacy of Relationships and the Challenge of Peer Pressure – Part 1

Relationships are everything to human beings, as we have discussed in earlier posts. What we do not spend enough time discussing is the power of peer pressure and how it affects relationships, learning, development, and self-esteem of our students.

All human beings are subject to peer pressure and this is especially true of school-aged children. This was true when I was a kid but, today, that pressure is magnified by the ubiquitous nature of social media. Has it ever been more powerful than it is in present times? We will come back to that thought.

One of my all-time favorite teachers was Mrs. Swartz, my seventh-grade social studies teacher at Johns Hill Junior High School, in Decatur, IL. The fact that I remember so much of what Mrs. Swartz said and taught should illustrate how much of an impact she had on my life. She was my favorite teacher and I truly believed that I was her favorite student. I looked forward to 4th period every single day.

One day she began a period by sending one of the class’s best students to the library for a pre-arranged visit to pick up literature of some kind. As soon as our classmate left the room, Mrs. Swartz drew five lines on the black board. Four of the lines were the same length and one was noticeably shorter. She then proceeded to explain to the class what we would do when our classmate returned from the library. No doubt, some of the teachers reading these words have conducted the same exercise.

Mrs. Swartz explained that the purpose of the exercise was to test the power of peer pressure. She asked us to say yes when asked if the lines were the same length. She also asked us to predict what our classmate would do when it was his turn. Would he report what was obvious to see, that one line was shorter than the others or, would he succumb to peer pressure and go along with his peers?

Because he was one of the smartest and most popular students in our grade, my classmates and I were almost unanimous in our belief that he would say that one line was shorter. We all watched with growing anticipation as Mrs. Swartz worked her way around the classroom and we observed as each kid announced, without a moment’s hesitation, that all five lines were of equal length.

When, finally, it was the turn of the subject of our experiment, we were stunned to hear him say, as did we all, that the lines were of equal length. As we sat in disbelief, our teacher finished her trek around the classroom so that every student had an opportunity to respond.

Taking care not to embarrass our classmate, Mrs. Swartz proceeded to explain peer pressure, noting that it has the power to affect everyone, even one of the most intelligent and independent students in our class. She asked our classmate how he felt during the exercise and he said he was confused when, one after another, we all announced the lines were the same length. He said, “it didn’t make any sense, so I just kept staring at the lines, trying to understand why I was seeing something different than everyone else.”

As she questioned him, he described being pulled in opposite directions. Part of him wanted to say “ we were all crazy and that line number five was clearly shorter than the others. Another part of him felt pressured to go along with the crowd.”

He then laughed and we all laughed with him, but his was loudest of all.

Even in such simple situations, kids feel pressure to conform to the ideas and behavior of their peers and it is this writer’s assertion this has never been truer than it is today. All educators and parents are aware of this pressure but how many formal strategies exist to help protect kids from this incredible force that diverts and distracts them from their priorities? The answer is that very little is done to deal with the power of the peer group.

There is an interesting side note to this story from 1959. It  was not until the next year, when my friends and I were talking about how much we missed having Mrs. Swartz as our social studies teacher, that I was stunned to learn that every single one my friends truly believed that he or she was Mrs. Swartz favorite student. It  made us love and miss her even more.

What if we could give every child a Mrs. Swartz and allow him or her to keep her as their teacher for 3 or even as many as 5 years? What kind of an impact would that have on a child’s emotional and learning development? What if we could help more young people develop a powerful self esteem that would enable them to make sensible decisions and stay focused on their priorities, even in the face of negative peer pressure? Providing such an environment is one of the purposes of The Hawkins Model©.

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