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The Peer Problem

When most parents hear the phrase "peer pressure," they usually think of wayward teenagers. But the influences, both positive and negative, that our children's friends exert appear much earlier and in a host of different ways.

"My son came home from school in the first grade and said, 'Dad, I can't play with the girls anymore,'" says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a child psychologist and coauthor of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys ($25, Ballantine Books). "I said, 'Why not?' And he told me, 'Cause Jack says I can't. Jack  -- and Nathan, too.' I asked him if he could ever play with the girls, and he said, 'Well, I guess I can when Jack and Nathan are sick.'"

Though peer pressure does peak during the junior-high years and continues into high school, children as young as the third grade begin to understand the "mechanics of popularity," say Patricia Adler, Ph.D., and Peter Adler, Ph.D., coauthors of Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity ($17, Rutgers University Press). They are well aware of who's cool, who's not, and what it takes to be part of the "in" crowd.

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will completely shield a child from peer pressure. "We're very dependent and interdependent animals," says Thompson. "We need to be part of a group. That sense of inclusion is incredibly important to us and kids suffer terribly if they're not part of a group." As much as children want to belong, however, there are steps parents can take to strengthen a child's sense of self and security that will help her ride the waves of peer pressure rather than get pulled down by the undertow.

1. Teach decision-making. It's important that your children know how to make decisions for themselves. "That way, they will know how to make wise and safe choices later on," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Parents DO Make a Difference ($18, Jossey-Bass). "Begin making safe decisions  -- 'Do you want to wear the red coat or the blue coat?'  -- with very young children at ages two and three. Kids who can make decisions for themselves later on are kids who have been practicing all along."

2. Provide positive influences. Give your child the chance to get involved with "good kids"  -- perhaps at church or synagogue, 4-H clubs, scout troops, and volunteer groups. These environments can foster responsibility and organization; honors classes or study groups may even push your child to hit the books. "Parents want positive peer pressure; good or bad, the invisible influence is still the same," says Thompson. "A child is going to be quite willing to do his homework at night if he knows all his classmates are doing it."

3. Play the part. Have your child practice sounding and looking assertive when he stands up to peer pressure. Just saying "no" doesn't mean much when your child sounds like she doesn't really mean it. "I use an acronym, CALM," says Borba. "'C' stands for talking calmly and using a confident voice. The second thing is asserting yourself  -- that's the 'A'  -- tell the person what you feel. The 'L' stands for looking him squarely in the eye. The 'M' stands for saying it like you mean it, with a firm voice. That's the behavior of assertiveness  -- standing tall and holding yourself straight."

4. Look beyond stereotypes. Don't judge your child's friend by his baggy jeans. The way he dresses doesn't necessarily make him a bad playmate. Rather than making superficial judgments, get to know your child's friends. Make yours a house where they want to spend time  -- stock the fridge, keep the VCR running, encourage your child to invite his friends over and observe. Not too closely, but keep the doors and lines of communication open.

5. Share your values. Make sure your children know what you believe in by modeling it yourself. Don't give lectures, but use anecdotes from your own life  -- experiences from your childhood and as an adult  -- of when you stood up for yourself, made your own decision, swam against the stream. Share with your kids times when you were successful, and times when you wish you had been stronger and what happened when you gave in to the pressure of your friends.

6. Don't criticize a friend. If your child and his friend break your rules, your child's behavior  -- not his friend  -- should be the issue. "When you attack a child's friend, you make that child's stock go up," says Thompson. "When my daughter was eight, she used to come home from playing with a friend who used terrible language. My daughter would use swear words that were strictly off-limits in our house. We explained to her that we have different rules and there's a consequence here. We didn't say, 'Those are bad kids.'"

7. Support friendships you like. When you meet one of your child's friends who is polite or models some behavior you would like to see in your child, compliment her on it, says Thompson. Say, "It's really great having you around. You're a wonderful girl." That's going to make an impression on her that she will relate to your own child. Then, when your child has to make a tough decision, her friend might offer some of that same support.

8. Get to know other parents. Mingle at the sidelines of soccer games with your child's friends' parents, chat when you drop your child off at a birthday party. The better acquainted you become with them, the better you'll know the rules and standards they set for their own children  -- the ones with whom your child spends time.

9. Offer yourself as a scapegoat. There's no safer out for a child than saying "My mom would kill me if I..." or "My dad says I have to go home now." In a tough situation, it gives them a way to save face in front of their friends.

10. Hold children accountable. Even young children should get used to feeling the consequences of their actions so that they know early on the cause and effect relationship of breaking rules and getting punished for it.

11. Describe your morals. Be clear about what you feel is right and wrong, and don't leave anything out. "Don't forget to talk about doing something mean with the group," says Thompson. "It's not just drugs and alcohol, it's also things like teasing and being cruel to others." Holding kids to a standard gets them used to evaluating their behavior, not only on what the group wants, but also on the moral content.

12. Be on the job. Know where your children are, whom they are with, and what they are doing. "Kids who are better supervised feel better cared for and are less prone to peer pressure," says Thompson. "Try to give them supervision until they can develop the ego strength to say 'no.'"

13. Figure out what matters most. Is it more important that your 9-year-old cuts her hair the way you like it or that she does her homework every night? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children look to their parents for the big issues  -- morals and religious values, academic habits, and career choices  -- and to their friends mostly for fads and trends such as hairstyles, fashion, and cultural tastes. Learn how to distinguish between a harmless rebellion and a full-scale revolt.