of us involved in youth ministry have long stressed to kids the
negative influence of peer pressure. We've given kids lots of advice on
how to avoid giving in to the pressures to conform and have urged them
to step up to be a positive influence in the lives of their friends.
All well and good. Yet, a newly released study reveals (in the book Escaping the Endless Adolescence by Joe Allen) that peer pressure is actually good for kids. In the end, it appears, the more peer pressure kids face, the better off they are as adults. Who knew?!
According to Allen, kids who face a lot of peer pressure learn skills that are important to success in adult relationships, such as empathy, negotiation, accommodation, and the ability to agree to disagree while preserving friendship. These kids had better academic scores, healthier romantic relationships, and were less likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol.
kids who do not experience much peer pressure, or who easily say no to
peer pressure, did not fare as well in the long run in terms of
developing relational skills. Academically, their GPAs were almost a
full point lower than kids who felt more peer pressure.
And what about the stereotypical peer pressure to smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs? Allen says that this type of pressure occurs less than people think, and is more about peer selection than peer pressure, with kids about to engage in these at-risk behaviors selecting friends who are in a similar spot.
According to every pop theory of adolescence, peer pressure is peril. Being able to resist it should be considered a sign of character strength. But a funny thing happened as Joe Allen, a professor at the University of Virginia, studied kids and peer pressure over a period of 10 years: the kids who felt more peer pressure when they were 12 or 13 were turning out better.
Notably, they had much higher-quality relationships with friends, parents, and romantic partners. Their need to fit in, in the early teens, later manifested itself as a willingness to accommodate ─ a necessary component of all reciprocal relationships. The self-conscious kid who spent seventh grade convinced that everyone was watching her learned to be attuned to subtle changes in others' moods. Years down the road, that heightened sensitivity lead to empathy and social adeptness.
Meanwhile, those kids who did not feel much peer pressure to smoke, drink, and shoplift in seventh grade didn't turn out to be the independent-minded stars we'd imagine. Instead, what was notable about them was that within five years they had a much lower GPA ─ almost a full grade lower. The kid who could say no to his peers turned out to be less engaged, all around, socially and academically. Basically, if he was so detached that he didn't care what his peers thought, he probably wasn't motivated by what his parents or society expected of him, either.