Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.
It begins in kindergarten. The gentle child you raised – who's never watched anything more violent than Happy Feet – comes home after a day with his new pals acting like a ninja. Teddy bears are now "bad guys" being "killed" by swords made of Lego.
Peer pressure is a recurring theme of childhood. Whether you're parenting a tot who's learning about guns, a grade-schooler yearning to wear make-up, a tween nagging for designer clothes or a teenager exposed to alcohol and drugs, the influence of someone other than you is petrifying.
But it's also inescapable. And, frankly, it's important to young people who are exploring their world and forming their identity independent of family. Peers play an increasingly larger role as children grow, challenging the foundations their parents have set and pushing against society's boundaries.
So as a new school year brings new peers and new pressures, how do you prepare your children to choose wisely when they launch out into the world? Is it enough to cross your fingers and hope your teachings stick? Should you pick your battles – let pass that first swear-word-filled music download and wait to tackle bigger issues? Or should you give that wagging finger a workout and practise your most stern, "I'm disappointed," look in the mirror?
Our mom had a subtle yet effective approach that we only ever noticed in hindsight. When we made friends whose influence was suspect (like Marc's classmate who had a fascination with knives and little supervision at home), she would be "too busy" to drive us over to their houses on weekends. But she would also host regular pizza and movie parties to nudge other new friendships to grow. Many parents tell us they encourage involvement in affirming peer groups like Scouts, religious groups or volunteering that bolster confidence while promoting pro-social activities.
Regardless of strategy, the quintessential parenting dilemma remains: How can help your kids make smart choices without overstepping? How can you be a moral guide without being annoying?
This week's question: How can parents best support their kids in the face of peer pressure?
Amori Yee Mikami, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia
"For young children, encourage positive friendships by getting to know your child's classmates (or teammates) and selecting peers who seem inclined to like your child. Arrange play dates with fun activities and enough supervision to avoid the risk of boredom or fights. Then once the friendship begins to form, parents can back off a bit."
Karen Skinulis, director of the Ontario Parent Education Centre in Richmond Hill, Ont.
"Keep your relationship strong. Listen with a non-judgmental attitude, ask open-ended questions that lead to solutions, and give opinions tactfully. Most importantly, have faith in their ability to make good decisions – even if mistakes are made at times. Lecturing only teaches them to tune you out and should be avoided at all costs."
Michael Ungar, author of Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive
Build resilience through a weave of emotionally sustaining experiences. Help form a strong sense of identity by instilling pride in their cultural heritage; ensure a diversity of relationships with peers and adults who care; and give responsibility to make decisions for themselves. Resilient, confident kids are less likely to choose silly ways to achieve status among their peers."
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