Surveys show that teenagers are influenced at least as much and probably more by friends than parents. How does this make parents feel? Nervous. VERY nervous! It isn't easy to move over when you're used to being the big kahuna (s) in your child's life. Of course, cultivating squeaky clean friends can do a lot to calm parents down on this issue. Friends who are not so squeaky, on the other hand, will have the opposite effect. In fact, your personal choices can move formerly easy-going parents from slightly nervous to downright worried to completely ballistic. Are they overreacting? Does choosing friends with different values really mean you will change yours? Not necessarily, and some kids do hang out with friends who party and never join in. It's risky though, and let me tell you why.
Recently, an evening news program featured a university study showing the tendency of human beings to conform to a group. Several unsuspecting college students were asked to take an exam. They were separated from one another and placed with what appeared to be a roomful of regular students. Those "regular" students, however, were only pretending to be real test-takers. They were actually part of the study, planted there to give incorrect answers. By the way, the test was easy and consisted of looking at four lines and choosing which two were the same length. The answers were obvious to anyone.
Here's the catch. Test-takers who were in on the scheme were coached ahead of time to purposely miss each question. They agreed as a group to solve every problem by giving the same, wrong answer. Chairs were arranged in a pattern which allowed the phony students to respond first, and every answer was spoken out loud. When the test began, the initial "real" student, who had no clue what was going on, looked puzzled by everyone else's inability to tell which two sticks were the same. He still gave the right answer and went on to answer the second and third questions correctly too. By the fourth question, however, with each planted student continuing to contradict him, the test subject appeared tense and unhappy. He gave the right solution, but without conviction. On question number five, the poor guy finally caved in and offered the same answer the others did, though his facial expression showed that he clearly knew it was incorrect.
The same experiment was conducted with several other test subjects, and only one held out against the crowd, giving the right answer to the very end. Later, she described herself as being so "uptight" she could barely respond. What did the scientists conclude? That people, by nature, want to fit in with group behavior. Even when they know they are right, it becomes harder and harder to go against what the group is doing.
Peer pressure is real, but it is often silent. Did the planted students tell the first test subject to answer as they did? No. Did they make fun of his correct answers? Not at all. They didn't need to. He still felt pressured to conform, not because they wanted him to but because instinctively he was more comfortable going with the flow. Will everyone give in to peer pressure? Not by a long shot. But the risk is there, and that risk is even greater when the pressure comes out in the open.
Our high school has few Mormons, so most of my children's friends went to parties for one reason... to party! One son's group made it fairly easy for him to obey the Word of Wisdom. They teased him a bit but were pretty low-key about the whole thing. Most of them seemed to respect his ability to swim upstream. Another son's group wasn't so easy. They were neat kids, but they were also kids who thought drinking was cool—and that refusing to drink with your friends was not cool. They saw drinking as a male bonding/football player kind of thing, and his not drinking with them was seen as a kind of rejection. Sometimes he felt guilty, like he was letting the group down by avoiding the keg. Other times he felt strange when they'd make comments or jokes about being Mormon. All these things made keeping the Word of Wisdom more of a struggle.
Peer groups are different, and you get to choose yours. A number of them will openly share your beliefs, supporting them with their own actions. Others will respect your beliefs but behave according to theirs. Some will actively try to change you. The important thing to remember is the lesson taught in our university study. Friends' behavior can influence you even when nothing is said—even when you don't realize you're being influenced. Group dynamics are powerful. That's why it doesn't hurt to think carefully about the groups you choose. It also doesn't hurt to be on guard once you're in them!
One more thought. Peer pressure is a force to be reckoned with, but sometimes the hardest pressure to withstand is the pressure you put on yourself. Regardless of what feeds it (parents, school, church, friends, low self-esteem, feelings of failure, or just a need to live up to whatever ideal you've set), pressure from within can be the most difficult of all. Of course a little pressure is needed or you might just lay in bed half the day—or become a total vegetable—but while some is good, too much is too much. Perfection isn't on the menu for this life, and while trying hard is a good thing, being hard on yourself is not. You could wind up wanting to feel better any way you can, and that's a dangerous place to be when you're trying to obey the Word of Wisdom. So give yourself a break once in a while, okay? Remember who you are, why you came here, where you're going, and whose help you can depend on in getting there. One thing's for sure... The best friend any of us will ever have is a loving Heavenly Father, and His influence is 100% guaranteed to bless, NOT stress.
(Check back next week when we'll talk about "The Quick Fix."