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Don't Blame the Parents; It's Mainly the Peers

Violent teens: As important as family is, other children do most of the shaping, or mis-shaping, in the growing-up process.

April 25, 1999|JUDITH RICH HARRIS | Judith Rich Harris is the author of "The Nurture Assumption" (Free Press, 1998)

A couple I know took their son out to dinner to celebrate his 23rd birthday. He opened up to them in a way he hadn't before, and they were devastated by what he revealed. He told them that he'd had a miserable childhood.

They had no idea. He was the apple of their eye. Their home life had been serene; the boy got along well with his older sisters. It was a home filled with love--filled with all the things the experts say kids need. His mother is one of the warmest, kindest people I know.

"But it wasn't your fault," the young man explained to his parents. 'It was the kids at school."

He had been an adorable kid, his mother told me, but small for his age. He was picked on in school. His parents hadn't known; he never told them.

I never told my parents either. For four years, from fourth through seventh grade (when we moved to another town), I was an outcast. None of my classmates would play with me or talk to me. It was terribly painful but I didn't want my parents to know. There was always the fear that they might butt in and make things even worse. There was also the feeling that it was none of their business.

The modern child commutes back and forth between two worlds: the home and the world outside the home. These worlds have different rules, different payoffs and penalties, a different cast of characters. In the home, parents play leading roles. They can make the home a haven or a hell; they can shower their children with praise or derision. But their power ends at the door of the home. Much as they would like to, parents cannot provide a magic coat of armor to protect their children from the slings and arrows of the world out there.

The world out there is the real world of the child. Childhood is preparation for the future, and kids were designed by nature to look forward, not back. The love of their parents can get them only so far. What they need for success in the long run is the esteem of their peers. They know this, or act as though they do. A kid might yield to his mother and put on a jacket, but if the other kids aren't wearing jackets, off it comes the moment he's out the door. A kid who speaks Spanish or Korean or Russian at home will quickly pick up the language of her peers and will speak it the way they do, not with the accent of her parents.

Kids who follow the rules at home, even when no one is looking, may lie or cheat outside the home. And kids who were law-abiding in fifth grade often stop being law-abiding in ninth, if that's what it takes--or what they think it takes--to win the respect of their peers.

To win the respect of one's peers in high school, it is necessary to show that one is not too much under the thumb of one's parents or teachers. For adolescents--particularly when they're in the company of their peers--adults are "them," not "us." Teenagers do dangerous things not because they are ignorant of the dangers but because they are keenly aware of them. They are showing their disdain for adult rules and concerns, which is a way of demonstrating their solidarity with the members of their own generation.

Kids who are rejected by the desirable peer groups of their high school will often get together and form their own group. What happens next depends on why they were rejected. If they were rejected because they were nerds, they might reinforce each other's nerdiness and get nerdier. If they were rejected because they were weird, they might get weirder. And if they were rejected because they were aggressive, they might get into real trouble.

Such kids are sometimes rejected or mistreated by their parents, too, but maybe that happens less often than we think, or doesn't hurt as much in the long run. Students at a Canadian university were asked, "What made you most unhappy when you were a child?" Only 9% mentioned their parents. Thirty-seven percent described incidents in which they were picked on, laughed at or rejected by their peers.

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