Peer Pressure – It’s Not Just For Kids

The experts talk a lot about the power of peer pressure and how to help kids resist its pull as they enter adolescence. We are taught that the peer group has a remarkable and sometimes frightening ability to sway our kids away from the path they know to be right – the one we work so hard to keep front and center in their lives.

But what doesn’t get discussed nearly as much is how peer pressure and the tendency to go along with the crowd continues through life and can defeat us when we become moms and dads.

A case in point: Shannon, the mother of two boys from Portland, wrote that she was upset and confused by something that had happened with a couple moms in her son’s class. Billy, Shannon’s fourth grader, was invited to a sleepover party by a known troublemaker and overall bad influence. She said no to the invitation and her son accepted her answer without much of a fuss.

Later that week she got talking to a couple other moms in the school parking lot. Neither of them wanted their kids go to the party either. They all agreed that based on past experience, it would be poorly supervised and fertile ground for trouble.

Shannon told them that she had said no and encouraged them to do the same given their strong reservations. After some discussion, they were all on board. But the next thing she knew, the moms had changed their minds and their kids were going to the party. It wasn’t that they couldn’t say no to their kid, they couldn’t say no to their friend.

The two moms confessed that they were afraid of the upset and conflict that might arise if they declined the invitation. They decided to just go along with it and hope for the best.

When Shannon asked why they didn’t just bow out gracefully, claiming a previous commitment, they were aghast. “I won’t tell a lie!” was the response. Putting their kids in a situation they knew was neither safe nor healthy seemed like a better choice.

Even though Shannon had stuck to her guns and done what she felt was right, she ended up feeling isolated and “out.” Then she began to question whether she was being overly protective since all the other mothers seemed to be okay with it – even though in her gut, she knew she was right. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

In this situation there are actually two things going on: the pressure to follow along with our peers and the tendency to avoid conflict at all costs. Women in general often feel uncomfortable making waves, not because they are biologically wimpier than men but because they are socialized to be accommodating. Thankfully, this is changing and girls today are more comfortable being assertive. But many adult women still struggle with this.

Let’s face it: whether we are 16 or 70, we all want to fit in. We all want friends. But once those kiddies show up in our lives, the cost of not being able to fight the pressure to go along with the crowd skyrockets. It’s no longer just the effects on us that we have to worry about if we lower our standards and bow to the group. Now we have to consider how our actions will impact the safety and well-being of our kids.

Some of the more common parental peer pressure traps that snare us every day include:

  • Letting kids go to parties or activities that are inappropriate or where supervision is questionable because our friends do.
  • Giving parties where rules are lax or non-existent because our friends do.
  • Letting teenagers drink or smoke pot at our homes because the other parents do.
  • Allowing girls to wear makeup or sexy clothing when they are too young because our friends do.
  • Letting kids have computers and T.V.’s in their rooms because our friends do.
  • Bending our own rules when we are around parents who have looser ones.

The thing to acknowledge is that we don’t always make bad parenting decisions simply because we have a hard time saying no to our kids. Sometimes it’s more that we don’t want to be odd (wo)man out with the other moms.

So how can you get more comfortable about following your own moral compass despite the influence of your peers? Start by paying attention to your feelings when you get into situations like this. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with what is being discussed, take notice. Check whether concerns about being different are causing you to question yourself and your values. Are they making it more likely that you will let others dictate what’s going to happen?

One of the best things to do is to take a good look at the other parents in your life and figure out which ones seem to be most on track and responsible when it comes to parenting. Wean out the ones who are constantly in crisis or who seem to make decisions that are inappropriate or irresponsible. A person who might have been a perfectly acceptable friend before you had kids might not be such a good fit now. Don’t forget: your peers matter! Surround yourself with good influences and depend on them for support.

In order to stand up for your own ideals, you don’t need to make a stink, you don’t need to shout, or to pass judgement. You must, however, learn to be discerning – to figure out what’s right for you and your family – and to stick to that truth calmly and courageously. You can definitely learn how to channel your “inner mama bear” and do what’s best for your children despite the potential social impact on you.

This is not a skill that can be learned overnight, but it can be practiced every day. And sometimes, if you follow your gut and do the unpopular thing, you are going to feel the sting of being the outsider. And that’s okay. You can do it anyway.

I would love to hear stories on this topic from you. Let us know how you’ve handled this kind of thing in your own life. Please share!


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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One response to “Peer Pressure – It’s Not Just For Kids”

  1. Hazel M. Wheeler

    Ellen, I am so glad you wrote this piece. In our current society, I think women do need to feel that they have permission to make reasonable, common sense decisions for their families, even when it means making other people uncomfortable or feels socially challenging.

    When my son was born, I connected with a group of women whose company I really enjoyed. The ladies were great, but when our little ones became toddlers, differences in our parenting styles emerged more strongly. Varying levels of supervision were an issue– some moms felt that ‘playground justice’ was fine and the little ones should be somewhat allowed to work things out on their own. While I was uncomfortable with this, I struggled with saying too much: I have a background in working with children and didn’t want to make these other parents feel badly for not doing things how I might. That said, it was clear that one child in particular was being allowed to do behave in an aggressive and dangerous nature, and that was pretty much it for me. As much as I really liked– and still do– like these women, I didn’t feel I had the right to subject my son to this sort of playtime for the sake of my pleasure in spending time with them. So, I’ve met up with them from time to time for drinks and have developed a deeper friendship with one of those ladies. Our boys play together well and I enjoy her company.

    There is a loss in this, and it must be acknowledged. As I write this, I feel like there were hurt feelings and possibly, some of the women felt judged by me. I’m not directly included in many of their activities any more, and while that doesn’t feel great, I don’t regret my decision to stop attending those playgroups or to let those friendships just ‘be’ whatever they were going to be. Parents have to make hard choices as we go through life, and while I know my particular values may not be shared, in the end, I have to answer to myself, my son and my husband– to my family and mine alone. It doesn’t feel good to be the odd one out, and my heart goes out to Shannon– it can feel really lonely sometimes when we are the only ones making good boundaries. But I also wonder what those other moms feel– if they wished they had been as brave and steadfast as she was to make the unpopular, harder decision. Shannon has a lot of personal integrity in keeping up her own family values and affirming what I would call her ‘family’s culture’ in the home… and she’s setting a very powerful example to her kids: just because everyone else thinks something is okay doesn’t mean it is. The easier path is not always the right one.

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