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It's a common scenario — the kids come home from school one day and start talking about something they want. Maybe it's a new video game, a new phone, or to go on a trip to some far locale. And inevitably it includes the phrase, "but everyone else has one, and I'm the only one who doesn't" (or something similar).
As a parent it can be difficult — after all, we are all familiar with feeling left out. And perhaps we're even a bit worried on how we'll be judged by other parents. Social media can increase that pressure, too — pictures of seemingly perfect birthday parties with coordinating colors and cute themes; smiling family vacation photos from Disney World; presents overflowing from beneath the Christmas tree; endless photos of successful sports activities. It just doesn't seem to end.
I still remember my little angst when my son reported to me, "Everyone has a phone AND an IPod AND their own computer." I recall wondering "Am I with the times?" Am I being realistic or old-fashioned? Am I in the know? Yes, indeed, I was feeling a bit of parental peer pressure.
The desire to be like others — to be an accepted part of the group — is a normal human tendency. We dress similarly, act similarly, and maybe even espouse similar beliefs because conforming offers us a better chance of being accepted. And we know it can be hard to go against the flow, especially when it's your child who has to deal with the social consequences. But as difficult as it can be, by giving in to that pressure, we're not actually helping our kids in the end.
When we think about our kids being singled out because they don't have the same shirt or brand of shoe, we may think we're helping to make them feel better about themselves — after all, they won't be the object of others' critical comments or feel like an outsider. But the implication is that others only like us for what we have, not who we are. And to be friends means to be the same. The message then undermines kids' self-confidence — it's not okay to be yourself.
Giving in to pressures may also foster a belief that satisfaction in life is found externally — in objects — and that happiness can, in fact, be bought. But as many parents have experienced following a birthday or holiday, often the gifts once longed for end up sitting, unused, while kids talk of a new desired item. And that's the reality: There will always be some new phone, new item of clothing, new accessory, or new toy around the corner.
When you're faced with pressure from your own kids, or caught up in trying to be a part of the crowd, there are a few tips to help you take a breath and ensure the decisions you're making are in the best interest of the family.
Discover where the request is coming from
Why is your daughter so persistent in wanting to dye her hair unicorn colors? Since when did your son start to care about the brand of shoe he wears? And why is it so important to your kids to have not just any phone, but the latest iPhone?
As children grow, they begin to establish identities separate from their families, and peers become a strong influence. They contribute to our sense of belonging and being a part of a group, and with that comes certain expectations to conform. And, in the middle school years, it can be especially challenging. Usually it means a transition to a new school, meeting new kids and with that may come the pressure of wanting to fit in or even impress others they wish to become friends with.
Talking with kids to understand what's behind the request can help. And it offers an opportunity to discuss strategies for managing peer pressure. And what a valuable conversation that can be — kids who feel confident and have positive strategies for coping won't feel pressured into drinking or trying drugs to try and fit in.
Acknowledge how they feel
Kids may feel like parents don't understand. Although let's be honest, the fear of feeling left out doesn't go away after we turn 20. But listening to what they have to say helps kids feel like their opinion and feelings are valid and important. It doesn't mean you have to agree or give in to the request, but talking about the situation and maintaining open communication can actually help strengthen your relationship.
As parents, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves on behalf of our kids. We want to give them nice things, we want to help them do well, get good grades, have lots of friends. We can feel guilty or worry that by saying no to a request, we may be setting them up for failure. If we're considering giving in to the request, take a moment to consider whether the request is inline with your values and the values you try to foster within the family. If not, then it makes your decision that much easier.
Depending on the situation, it may be helpful to set up some guidelines. For example, if they want a pair of shoes more expensive than you'd normally buy, they need to earn the money to purchase them. If it's a mobile phone, they need to pay the monthly charge. It doesn't work for all situations — for example if they want to sign up for a sports activity but there's no way to make the schedule work. In that case it may be a matter of explaining how we are faced with difficult choices sometimes and have to compromise by looking for other options — maybe a different league. But working together to identify possible solutions for those requests you feel are reasonable can help.
As parents we're faced with challenging situations every day, and all we can do is try to approach each one thoughtfully and do our best. Sometimes our decisions will leave us feeling doubtful, questioning whether it is the right one. But there rarely is a right answer, only what's best for your family.
What did I do with my angst? I actually sent a group email to some of the mothers of the kids that my son was comparing himself to. He was right. They all had some type of gadget and my son had absolutely no devices. A serial group email forum was started that was quite comical and educational. In the end, we discussed his initial outcry, the group email forum, and then discussed it with him. We still ended up not buying him anything that year, however, we became a bit more enlightened about my son's world and also about ourselves as parents.