Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The fear of being left out is what it’s all about
No one wants to get laughed at or be the odd one out
No one likes to feel rejected put down and dejected
we all love to feel accepted, we’re all affected
but you have to learn to be your own person
just be yourself and aim to be your best version
You’re not a robot programmed to follow without thinking
just acting brainless with empty eyes blinking
I understand the pressure it doesn’t stop as you grow
It’s natural to follow where everyone goes
and sometimes it’s ok to go with the flow
but other times you have to swim against the tide and so
you’ll have to say no, when everyone says yes
and be firm with your choice deep in your chest
and overcome that fear of being left out
because that’s what peer pressure is really all about

-Karl Nova

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Of all the social influences our children are subjected to peer pressure is probably the most powerful. Peer pressure exists for all ages. Even a three-year-old knows that she better not show up to playgroup in the Chanukah socks her Bubby just bought her. Its power of persuasion continues to grow steadily as a child matures, and peaks during the teenage years, when the desire to conform to the group’s standards and feel accepted becomes irresistible.

Researchers have always been fascinated with the power of peer pressure and there are an endless array of scientific studies conducted over the years illustrating just how much we are influenced by it. Allow me to familiarize you with two of them – the cockroach study and the towel study.

Dr. Jose Halloy is a biology researcher at the Free University of Brussels. He decided to determine whether peer pressure influences members of the insect world. He and his colleagues set up an area for cockroaches with two plastic discs suspended over it.  Cockroaches prefer to congregate in the dark, so one disc was darkened, making it a more likely place for them to hang out.

All 16 cockroaches gravitated towards the darker one. However, when Dr. Halloy placed four “robot” cockroaches under the lighter disc, things changed. The real roaches noticed their “robot” friends under the light and decided to join them there, against their natural inclination. This happened a full 60% of the time.

Now, in case you think that we humans are smarter, consider this study conducted by Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. Cialdini and his colleagues wanted to see how guests at an upscale Phoenix hotel would react to message cards that asked them to re-use the hotel’s towels.  Only he varied the messages. On some cards, he wrote, “Help save the environment.” On others he wrote, “Partner with us to save the environment.”  And on still others, the message read, “Join your fellow citizens in helping to save the environment,” followed by information that most of their fellow hotel guests actually do re-use their towels.

Guess what? The study concluded that, “compared to the first messages, the final social message increased towel reusage by an average of 34%.” This means that many people decided to re-use their towels simply because they were informed that this is what other people do. If everyone else is doing it, they figured, so will I. Peer pressure, pure and simple.

I present you with this research data not because it’s interesting or cute, but so that you will fully appreciate the significance of the power of peer pressure. Cockroaches and towels notwithstanding, what does this have to do with you and your child?

Let’s explore the topic as it affects our community. I’ll be the first to tell you that the effects of peer pressure can sometimes be wonderful. Our Sages call it, “kinas sofrim,” a form of envy that challenges us to achieve greater heights. Is your yeshiva bochur impressed with his friends who are wholesome and sincere? Does he suddenly want to observe a higher standard of kashrus? Consider yourself blessed. Does your teenage daughter offer to babysit the little ones so you can properly clean for Pesach because that’s what her friends do before Yom Tov? If so, you are a lucky mother. You have the zechus of having wonderful role models for your children who are influencing them for the good.

The problem arises when the peers are not all you would like them to be, and your child is facing strong pressure to conform to standards he knows are not acceptable or, at best, can be found in the murky “grey area.” Is your son being exposed to music you do not approve of by his bunkmates in camp? Did your daughter stop studying for her tests because all the other girls would rather go for ice cream after school? And finally, is it only a matter of time until your innocent yeshiva bochur is going to be offered his first cigarette?

Can we sit with our children all day long and shelter them from these negative influences? Of course not. But we can teach them how to handle the sticky situations and the difficult decisions that will inevitably come their way. And we can build up their self-esteem and self-assurance so that they will know that it’s okay to say “No.” Much like the salmon that chooses to go against the current in order to continue to lay eggs and have future generations of salmon, we need to teach our children how to “swim upstream.”

The best way to fight negative peer pressure is to build competence skills in our kids. Here are two that are critical: “refusal assertiveness” (i.e. saying “No” to that cigarette) and good decision making (i.e. “What are my best alternatives in this situation?”).

A study cited in the journal “Addictive Behavior” demonstrated that children taught to develop these skills were significantly less likely to “follow the crowd” in terms of negative behavior. The message to us is clear. Let’s teach our children to resist peer pressure when they have to. We don’t have to sit with them all day or worry about the social influences they might encounter. We just have to give them the tools to handle them.

In my office, I often deal with parents asking for advice on how to handle the difficult challenges of adolescence and the teen years. The following are just a few pointers I would like to share with you.

First of all, keep the lines of communication open. Be ready and available to your child at all times, and make it clear that he or she can discuss anything with you.

I also think it’s a good idea to be proactive. If you know that there are social issues in your child’s school don’t wait for your child to approach you. Be direct and open and talk about it now. Say, “I heard there are some boys in your class who are giving the Rebbe a hard time. Is it affecting your learning as well?”

Role-playing is an effective tool in bringing the message home. You could pretend to be the youngster and he can play the role of the older bochur who is offering you a cigarette. When he tries to make his offer, you firmly refuse. Then you can switch roles and have him practice saying no. It will be an eye opening experience for him.

Finally, our children are taught from a young age that they must be polite at all times. Now, we have to teach them that occasionally it’s okay to be rude. Let your daughter understand that if a friend is trying to cheat off her on the math exam, it’s okay to ask the teacher to change her seat. And if the whole group is engaging in a juicy lashon hora session, it’s okay to object or to walk away.

The question is: do you want to teach your child to swim against the tide if the tide is going in a perilous direction? I think the answer is clear, but the tide is often strong and our children need us to help propel them forward, to teach them to swim upstream. With a strong basis and support system, they can be the brave salmon instead of the cowardly cockroach!

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