My daughter called me from her seminary in Israel. “As the only chassidish girl in seminary,” she informed me, “probably the only chassidishe girl these seminary girls have ever met in their lives, I have become the spokesperson for all of chassidish women in the world.”
“I need to explain everything to them,” she said. “Whatever I do that’s different, they need to understand. So whatever I have been doing until now without thinking, I am learning how to think about so I can tell them!”
I laughed again.
“They can’t believe we don’t watch videos or play computer games,” she said. “I always thought that was normal, and I still do, but now I have to think about why. Like why you raised us like that and why I think it’s the right way. And if this is part of being chassidish or just what any Jewish home should enforce for their kids. Because watching videos and computer games is really dumb, but does it have anything to do with being chassidish? Or even Jewish?”
And as I listened to my daughter, I felt this incredible satisfaction of bucking the peer pressure of my days and watching the results in living color—without the screen.
Even more, there was pride in my daughter that she too stood apart of the peer pressure, not only in seminary, but throughout her life. And not only pride for her, but for my other children as well. As a person and then parent who has mostly ignored peer pressure (even when the pressure built inside of me!), raising children who have generally done the same is extremely rewarding. Because peer pressure is annoying, even debilitating at times, and I am so glad it doesn’t feature too largely in our lives.
What is peer pressure? Why do we compromise ourselves under this social pressure? How does peer pressure work and manifest itself on the playground, at school, at home, and at work? How and why do we become sheeple, mindlessly following the flock, experience the herd mentality, without questioning, “Why am I following this herd?” Even when the herd is doing what it's supposed to be doing. Like eating grass to make rich milk.
And at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I ask the same thing about those who practice their Judaism without knowing why they do what they do. Without asking why.
Very simply, peer pressure is the need individuals feel to conform to the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of influential peers. This need is often experienced as an almost physical push, bending them under the weight of those influential, powerful peers. It's the security of belonging. Of being protected by those who demand this conformity. It's the relief of not having to make decisions, to think, to figure things out alone.
Peer pressure begins on the playground, right at that very beginning of time when we enter school and become aware of others. Suddenly we are confronted by people who are not exactly like us, or our families. And we try to make sense of it. To fight it; to fit in.
I attended a school where reading was considered weird, to put it mildly. While I was extremely athletic and loved sports, I was equally happy during recess reading my book. I will never forget being approached one recess by my teacher. This followed some provoking by my peers, in which they chanted something to the tune of: “Mindy is reading a book again; Mindy is reading a book again!”
“What are you reading?” my fifth-grade teacher asked suspiciously.
I showed her my six-hundred-page historical novel in which I was engrossed. It was a sweeping saga beginning in pre-WWII Europe, spanning WWII, the subsequent creation of the state of Israel, and the Israeli War of Independence. I was enthralled. I may not have understood all the words, but the story flew off the page.
My recess activity obviously was not conforming to peer norms, and my teacher confiscated the book and informed me that she would be calling my mother. Which she did, and my mother expressed appropriate shock to my teacher that I was reading during recess, and especially a historical book about adult topics, and then scolded me at home, “Read these books only at home,” she said firmly.
And I relish the memory of that moment in which my mother conveyed to me very clearly that it was okay to be me, while protecting me from peer pressure to be otherwise.
While peer pressure stays a steady presence during the middle school years, it takes on gargantuan proportions during the teen years. The tasks of the teenage years are both forming relationships and individuating; a seeming contradiction.
How is possible to form close peer relationships if one tries to fight for their individuality at the same time? Isn’t it necessary to be part of a group to have social relationships?
But a teenager must first learn her/himself, to individuate from the herd, in order to find like-minded peers, within whose group she remains an individual and is celebrated for that individuality.
Which is why the friends I relished were those who came to my home Shabbos afternoons and curled up next to me on my bed, all of us sharing our love for reading while we read together, and individually. Those were my favorite Shabbos get-togethers; in contrast to the other afternoons in which I suffered through small talk and gossip, never really fitting in, afraid of not being invited to the next week’s get-together, but not wanting to go anyway.
Here’s an interesting tidbit:
The highest levels of resistance to peer pressure takes place between the ages of 14 to 18. Then between the ages of 18 to 30 there is no significant evidence of change concerning resistance to peer pressure. Strange, no?
But here’s why. During the teen years is when we are pushed developmentally to individuate. and so we do by pushing our boundaries, standing up for what we believe in, argue against what we don’t, and generally driving everyone around us crazy with our contrariness. But the result for a teen like that is the ability to mark her own path. To do her own thing. To follow her own dreams and ideas and values and beliefs.
This push thing is like the push a baby must have to start walking. It’s not something we teach the baby consciously, it’s that developmental stage in which the baby just feels that push to do that walking stuff and we celebrate those steps. So too, teens have the development stage of individuation that feels like an inner drive to be. And when parents celebrate that ability, the teen can stand up to peer pressure as she or he figures out what life is all about on a deeper level.
So, between 14 to 18 there’s that push to separate from the herd, to withstand peer pressure to figure out who they are and what they believe in—and why they believe in what they do. Even when others disagree. Teens who can do that successfully end up being adults who continue to be themselves in the face of peer pressure. And those who have not been able to withstand peer pressure in their teen years, stay those same patsies as adults. Voiceless, shapeless chameleons that blend in with the peer crowd du jour.
Children susceptible to peer pressure are those who have not been made to feel like their ideas and thoughts are valuable; therefore, they doubt themselves when confronted with powerful peers who carry the confidence of being in-the-know or in-the-right. Children who have no voice at home, shut down by parents or siblings, will carry those patterns outside of the home as well. The same is true of the type of school in which a child spends her formative years.
I used to teach writing in different high schools. I found it fascinating how the culture of each high school influenced the quality of the writing. Schools that fostered rigid adherence to rules and frowned upon questions and animated discussion about various ideas and topics also stifled writing expression. In one school, I remember, I used to get perfect grammar and spelling; but writing that lacked soul. And when I pounded against my students to write, they expressed fear, and instead insisted on cookie-cutter ideas devoid of voice.
What would breed this type of attitude and behavior of conforming to peer pressure?
In schools, I venture to say that prestigious jobs and acceptance to seminary plays a role in the pressure to conform and follow the crowd. Not draw attention to one’s self if it may not jive with the culture of the school. As adults, shidduchim stifles one’s natural expression of self. And then of course, the cycle begins again. Getting one’s child into the right school, camp, seminary, shidduch…so that the cycle can begin again.
But children who find ways to individuate in a healthy way, those encouraged to do so by their parents and educators, do not lose out. Because eventually—maybe not during their school years—but eventually, find like-minded peers. They also find their social groups. Not groups that create pressure to conform, but groups that create more opportunities for self-growth.
While at work, many people bow under peer pressure to be like everyone else, melt into the crowd for fear of losing their job, their status; it won’t surprise you when I assert that only the individuated workers rise to the top. Their ability to think and think creatively and originally—not bound by convention and the fear of others—is what differentiates them.
“But why, Mindy?” my clients ask me. “Why do I need to be an individual, to fight for my beliefs and ideas, to find my own way, to ask questions about my life and religion and family? Why can’t I just be life everyone else and do whatever everyone else is doing?”
Because then, I explain, you have skipped a developmental stage that is necessary for self-growth. A baby needs to learn how to sit before it can learn to walk. Some babies skip that sitting stage and go straight to standing, true; but somewhere along the line, there has been some physical and mental gap that will manifest itself in other developmental stages in that baby’s life.
And if a person is in therapy, then some problem, some unhappiness has driven that person to therapy. And often, as an existential therapist, I encourage my clients to read books, to ask questions, to examine their life; because sometimes the unhappiness is not their spouse or child or lack of talents or money, but simply their inability to think about their life; specifically about the religious and cultural beliefs that govern their lives. To live authentically, their way of living their lives in accordance to their belief system most certainly must be authentic.
It’s a hard concept to sell to someone who insists their problems or unhappiness is rooted in their selfish or lazy spouse, their impossible child, or horrible boss. Especially when that client is watching his life being lived in precisely the manner that all his peers live their lives. The peer pressure is so great, that there is little understanding of how this life built around peer pressure can be faulty.
Judaism specifically is not a religion for sheeples. It demands we ask questions. It demands we think. It may demand we accept that some things have no answers, but questions are celebrated just for being raised.
I remember how in second grade, in Morah Stein’s class in Rabbi Balkany’s elementary school, my greatest thrill was being praised not for a correct answer, but for an excellent question.
With pressure to conform to peers, for the various cultural and societal reasons we do so, we often forget that the question posed by a child, “How do we know Hashem exists,” is the same Avraham Avinu asked almost six thousand years ago. A question that is not heresy, but authentic Judaism.
A child of parents who love ideas, Hashem, and have strong values, is safe to question all their ideas and values. These parents are not threatened by questions, they are stimulated.
I tell this to my clients who are afraid to question their life’s challenges. To ask difficult questions of Hashem. To demand answers.
“If a frustrated two-year-old tells a parent, ‘You are not my mother!’ Does that parent cease to exist? Does that parent become infuriated at the two-year-old? Fear annihilation?”
Then why are we so afraid to say the same to Hashem? Why are we afraid, as parents, as educators, to allow the development stage of individuation to occur? To stand up to the peer pressure that demands we think the same, act the same, be the same? Are we seriously afraid Hashem will cease to exist because of some questions posed by our children?
Because when we don’t use the gray matter that makes up our brain, then we don’t matter.
Now after bashing peer pressure for quite some time, it’s only fair to ask if there’s any place for peer pressure. And the answer is yes, of course; because any extreme is extreme. Society is made up of social norms and like-minded groups.
The peer pressure of my Scrabble group is to play Scrabble; the peer pressure of my writing group is to write. There is peer pressure to keep up with the newest trainings in my field of social work. And I think peer pressure in a classroom to excel at learning is a useful tool (in moderation) to help children learn for a reason until they reason why they learn.
I like that I live in a neighborhood where we look and act similar. There is a level of comfort in sameness. But I was glad that my daughter’s seminary peers challenged her to see where she was different from them and I knew her well enough to know that the result would be increased individuation rather than the safety of peer pressure, the capitulation to peer pressure, to be just like everybody else.
Here’s the ultimate test of what level of impact peer pressure has on your life. It’s a simple one-question test that I use with clients to assess their level of individuation. Ready? Here is it: Have you ever eaten a pizza by yourself in a pizza shop?
Think about your reaction. Your answer to this test.
I often prefer it. With a book at my side, of course.
And when I was a teenager, I had no idea there was anything strange about i!
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