By Michal Lloyd
It isn’t always bad to conform. We follow others’ leads so that we can be safe. When parents notice their kids mindlessly imitating a friend and say, “If your friend did that, would you do it too?” The answer is that if it would protect them from bullying, solo lunches, and staying home on a Friday night, then yes, they might consider it. In the presence of their peers, our kids face more challenges than we realize.
My mother tells this story every Thanksgiving. A young woman is cooking a Thanksgiving turkey for the first time, and she hacks off the last three inches of the bird. Her new husband then inquires, why are you hacking off the end of the turkey? The woman’s mother overhears them talking and laughs, saying she always cut off the end of the bird because she didn’t have a big enough pan to fit it. This story has many variations, but it illustrates that we are natural conformists.
Conformity doesn’t just help with synchronized swimming. When we cooperate, it saves us a lot of suffering. According to Dictionary.com, a norm is a pattern or standard of behavior expected of each member of a social group.
I like to refer to this phenomenon as my old friend Norman.
Norman has a tremendous influence on us all. Norman influences our manners and can be pretty disapproving when we don’t do what he wants. The problem arises when Norman’s rules don’t fit with your values. If we value frugality but go shopping with friends and spend more than we want to fit in, we have gone against our values. Chances are the issue will come up over and over again until you’ve had an actual sit-down with Norm. It doesn’t mean you have to judge your friends who have different values or budgets than you, but you might want to do other things with them that don’t make you feel wrong about who you are.
Norms have been stalking us all our lives, and no matter who you are, we all fall victim to Norm’s whims. Norm isn’t bad. I believe his intentions are good. He wants to keep us safe.
So, let’s dissect an adult event to use as an example for dealing with Norman. You want to see your friends, but you know there will be pressure to have a drink or spend more money than you want.
What can you do to keep the damage low? How can you honor your values? Get to the restaurant early and have a nonalcoholic drink in hand? These are the kinds of tools your child can use to help navigate the pressures of new friendships. Kids don’t have much experience setting boundaries. Even if they want to do the right thing, it can be tricky. That is why brainstorming and planning are helpful.
Norm is going to tell kids not to be a ninny or a whiner. He tells us the same thing. Planning how to deal with tricky situations is like putting on armor. For example, tell your kids that if they don’t want to go to a party they can plan in advance and say they have a very strict mother who won’t let them go.
Fact: It is hard to discover what we want if we let others decide for us.
There are unwritten rules in families, too. In my family, we fixed our problems with duct tape and Old Milwaukee; both work for a while but not forever. So rejecting these tools might upset people at first. There is usually some discomfort when you go against the status quo—because you are bucking an established system. We need community, but we also need to be aware of our personal values. Here are five tips for parents to help kids manage Norman’s wacky ways.
- Help your child learn what they value. The better they understand their values, the better they can guide them in challenging situations. NOTE: These must be their values, not yours.
- It is our actions that reflect our values, not our thoughts. Model your values for your children. Don’t tell them to love their neighbor and then do mean things to your neighbor. Kids will notice these inconsistencies.
- Help your kids plan for when they run into Norm.
- Teach your child to trust their gut. If it feels wrong, chances are it is the wrong choice.
- Ask your kids who they admire and why. Some might be cringe-worthy, but it will tell you who they are modeling themselves after.
The truth is if you go against Norman, it will likely mean you become more vulnerable. You stand out in a crowd which can be dangerous in some cases. It could mean your kid doesn’t have anyone to play with at recess. It is good to be social, but it is also good to take risks and figure out the mystery of who you are. If your child feels safe in their environment, they are more likely to take risks that can produce impactful growth.
Reevaluating what we do and why, on occasion, is valuable. We might end up getting a few more inches of turkey out of the deal.
Want more information on how to help your teens navigate the challenges or peer pressure? Check out the resources below.
- Helping Teens Deal with Peer Pressure
- Friendships: Helping Your Child Through Early Adolescence
- The Power of Peer Pressure on Teens
- The Relationship Between Peer Pressure and Addiction
- How to Survive Teen Peer Pressure
- Helping Kids Handle Peer Pressure