Thursday, September 30, 2010

Parents: Meet Peer Pressure

I'm in the process of developing a pitch about Peer Pressure, and how it kicks in when children turn 7 and 8 years old. This idea came from the following experience: Shortly before Jamie turned 7, he started saying he loves the color black, and doesn't like any other color. This came on the heels of me asking what color we might paint his room if we were to give it a fresh paint job. At first I didn't think too much of it; it seemed like he was teasing. But over the next weeks, he continued to say how much he liked gray and black and brown; not red or green or yellow, like he used to (funny how much the subject of color actually comes up in daily life, but I digress). Over the weeks I became worried and wondered, Was he depressed? Is this color thing emanating from a slurry of dark and gloomy feelings? He seemed to be acting normal, otherwise. This is a kid who used to dive into jars of paint and cover a whole swath of paper, leaving no white space behind from streaks of reds and oranges and greens. On the eve of his school birthday party, we were painting his goodie bags, which we always paint ourselves (this brown bag birthday tradition is either overly-frugal or a nice personal touch, take your pick). Jamie insisted on painting them black.

Looking back, I can see that I had a narcissistic reaction to this. Birthday goodie bags black? What will the teachers and parents think? Isn't that a bit macabre for a birthday bash that's happening in June, not say, October? I wish at this point in the story I could say that I was the cool parent who let him do what he wanted to, hey, they're his birthday goodie bags. I did not. I insisted on brighter colors, and waxed on about how bright colors represent celebrations while dark colors are used for sad occasions, like funerals.

Eventually, Jamie became interested in the red and pink and orange poster paints I put in front of him. And eventually he told me his best friend at school told him that he didn't like any colors besides black, brown and gray. In fact, he got so emotional talking about it that through tears he spat out that his "mind had been washed." Where he picked up that phrase, I don't know. When I asked him what colors he would want to paint his bags if he didn't care what his friend thought, he started bawling and said "red and pink!" For some reason the colors red and pink resonated an innocence that broke my heart.

When I was researching a piece I wrote for Parents about parental negativity and how it affects children, I talked a lot with child psychologists about the mental development of the school-aged set. Among the refrain that came out of the experts' mouths was that kids at this age really, really begin care what their friends think. I'd never considered this too much until this event cropped up, and it got me to thinking, Is it important now that I'm mom to a seven year old to look at others' influences, and learn how to delineate between the positive and negative ones? Maybe this is extremely obvious to every other parent out there, but I have to say, there's a certain moment where outside influences click hard, and your kids come home with a strong idea about something they didn't leave the house thinking about that morning. I have to keep reminding myself that this is not about bullying; it's about maintaining your individuality and being proud of your daily decisions, and filtering them through your own burgeoning belief system. I'm aiming to now talk to experts about how to teach children to use these influences in a positive way, and how to teach them to be connected to their peers, but stay true to their own beliefs and desires. What do you think?

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