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Teens Will Listen to Peers Before Parents

Commentary

Education: A teacher finds that kids will heed the rules they themselves set.

August 27, 1998|CAROL JAGO | Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She can be reached at jago@gseis.ucla.edu

Are your students misbehaving? Teacher handbooks, school of education gurus and school administrators agree: The first course of action for the frazzled teacher is to get on the phone to parents. If a student disrupts class, tell his parents to make him stop. If a child is lazy, ask them to help you get him working. But new psychological research suggests that this classic tack is a waste of everybody's time.

In her book "The Nurture Assumption," Judith Harris, self-styled nonacademic and author of college textbooks on child development, now suggests that it is peers much more than parents who shape children's behavior. Mom and dad provide the genes, but beyond that there is minimal connection between their own and their child's character.

Harris' research, which has been praised by such luminaries as Stanford's Robert Sapolsky and MIT's Steven Pinker, explodes the myth that children are influenced by a combination of nature and nurture. She argues that 50 years of focusing on child-rearing techniques as the basis for understanding children's behavior has blinded psychologists to the influence peers have in shaping character. Harris calls this the "nurture assumption."

While the American Psychological Assn. reels over the implications of her theory, no high school teacher I know will be much surprised. Like many of my colleagues, I have never had much luck changing student behavior through parent intervention. More often than not, I dial the phone hoping to get help with persuading a teenager to exhibit a bit of self-control and instead find myself counseling frustrated parents. Mothers tend to apologize profusely as though they are the ones who have let me down. Fathers interrupted at work assure me that everything will be "handled." I worry that rather than solving a problem, I have created a new one.

Over time, I have learned to save the dime and deal with misbehaving students through their peers. It helps to begin the school year with a set of student-designed behavior standards. Inevitably, the rules students write are the same ones that I could have dusted off and handed out from last year, but it makes a huge difference to have each class determine for themselves what civilized behavior will look like within their classroom. "No throwing things. Pay attention when someone else is talking. No writing on the desks. Come on time. Bring pens, paper and books. No swearing." When students transgress, it is their own rules they are breaking. A disruptive individual violates standards of behavior he had a hand in shaping. And students who behave are conforming not to the suspect authority of an adult, but to rules set by their own peers.

Of course, only a fool--or someone who has never spent much time around teenagers--would believe that this technique always results in perfect harmony and yearlong cooperation. Ninth graders were born to try their parents' and teachers' patience. But the focus has shifted from pleasing us to pleasing their peers.

Harris posits that whatever our parents do to us, for better or for worse, is ultimately overshadowed by what our peers do to us. Most children don't want to be like their parents, and they certainly don't want to be like their dusty old teachers. They want to be successful children. With a bit of cunning and a lot of love, we just may be able to help them be both.

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