Headed out of our neighborhood last weekend with both kids, my husband rounded a corner and came to an abrupt stop. Four boys around the age of 11 sat in lawn chairs placed strategically across the road. They remained there with their heads down, giggling, but you could tell a couple of them were nervous. Eventually one boy stood and moved his chair to let us through, but only after I rolled down the window and insisted that he do so.
Once on our way our 5 year old’s questions started coming: Who was that? What were they doing? Why didn’t they move? I immediately launched into “teachable moment” mode:
I don’t know those kids. I guess they thought it would be funny if they blocked the road, but that was a pretty bad idea because they could really get hurt. What do you think would have happened if a car came around the corner and didn’t see them?
They’d get hit.
Yeah. Sometimes friends have bad ideas. What would you do if one of your friends had a bad idea like that and told you to sit in the middle of the street or do something else dangerous?
I’d say no.
You have lots of good ideas, you know. I love how smart and creative you are with the games you think of and all your projects…..You could be like, “That’s dangerous guys. Let’s do something better like build a fort or something.” You don’t need to following along with someone else’s bad idea – you have great ideas. You should think for yourself.
Truth be told, the boys in the street were kind of funny. But adhering to one of the unwritten rules of parenthood – in certain circumstances you must pretend to find no humor in amusing situations – I could only appreciate the road blockers for the opportunity they offered me to talk to my kids about being influenced by friends. Another truth…my 5 year old often has very bad ideas (she’s five for goodness sake). But as a firm believer in self-fulfilling prophecy, I like to throw out some positive expectation for behavior when I can.
While I don’t know how much my 3 or 5 year old took away from our little discussion in the car, I do know that the importance of friendship has been steadily growing for them with each passing year. And as the importance of friendship increases, the influence of friends increases too.
We can help our kids process what they see at any age. Focusing on empathy and perspective taking can help our kids understand others’ choices and equip them to make better choices themselves. And talking through situations not only provides us with cautionary tales (“remember those kids in the street”), it helps build our kids’ repertoires, giving them lots of tools for handling themselves among their peers.
Thankfully, peer influence isn’t always bad. Sometimes friends set wonderful examples for behavior – the trick is keeping an eye out for those….Like the time when my oldest daughter and I watched three kids riding bikes through a shopping center. When one of the kids rode through a bed of flowers, the child in the lead turned to reprimand him, “What are you doing man? You’re going to kill those flowers?!” The lead boy was quickly joined by the third in tow, “Yeah man. Get out of the flowers!” It was weird how much I loved witnessing this. And I was surprised by how proud I felt of this boy I didn’t know for standing up for respect and responsible citizenship. But what I loved most was being able to point out to my daughter that friends can influence friends in positive ways too.
Image courtesy of Microsoft Office Clip Art