Parenting: How Do You Overcome the Negative Influence of Social Conformity

There was an interesting experiment done in the 1950s by psychologist Solomon Asch on social conformity. A group of seven people was handed a slip of paper with several lines of differing lengths on it and asked each in turn to describe what they saw. Unbeknownst to the last person, the first 6 individuals are dummy subjects placed there by Asch. They were instructed to report that they saw four lines of equal length. The last person, who is the real test subject, was then asked to describe what he saw and 30% of the time, that person said he saw equal-length lines, too! “Over the 12 critical trials about 75% of participants conformed at least once and 25% of participant never conformed. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.”

I’ve been thinking a lot of about this with respect to my boys. Aristotle, I know, would never conform if he knew he was right. Even if he was the only one who was wrong but thought he was right, he would insist upon his theory. When he was a picky eater as a child, I was assured that he would “fall into line” once he saw the other kids in school eat the same thing. When he started school, he opted to go hungry rather than eat what everyone else was eating if he so much as thought he wouldn’t like it. He is pig-headed and stubborn and this trait can really test us as his parents, but the positive side to this is that we can be assured that he is less likely to succumb to peer pressure in a tough situation. So as much as I want to spew blood whenever he goes head to head with me, I try to remember that I want to correct his behaviour, not crush him into subservience.

On this matter of social conformity, my real concerns are with Hercules. As hot-tempered as he can be at times, he generally backs down and falls into line when expected to. This is great when you’re a parent wanting your child to “behave appropriately”. What bothers me is that he overrides his belief of what is right in order to follow the herd as I have seen in class when the teacher asks a question to which I know he knows the answer and he answers incorrectly because that is what the other children have answered.

This is clearly just a difference in temperament between the two boys but I wonder if there is something we can do to help Hercules stand true to his beliefs. As he heads into the bigger school territory, peer pressure and the need to conform will increase. I can teach him our family values and beliefs but will he be strong enough to stand up for them in the face of peer opposition? Do I underestimate him? I have no answers for this so I’m going to turn this question out there. How do you help your child stand up to peer pressure?

Here are some useful articles I found online:

In “Teaching Children to be Assertive”, the general advice is:

  • be mindful of sending mixed messages to our children when we say one thing but behave in another, for instance, when we tell our children we want them to have their own thoughts but then find we don’t like it when they have an opinion that differs to ours and want to convince them to think otherwise.
  • encourage children to speak up
  • teach them to break away from the group, for instance, if the group is pushing for an unacceptable action, such as stealing.
  • as important as it is to teach children to take the lead, it is also important to teach them how to follow – it’s not always about doing things “my way” but learning when to accommodate others as well.
  • encourage children to try new things so they are not afraid of change or doing something different.
  • teach them to respect boundaries, for example, we knock before we enter someone else’s room, we ask permission to borrow something. At the same time, our children should expect others to respect their boundaries.
  • teach children that they have a right to say “no” and be respected for it. For example, the boys like to rag each other and sometimes it’s all in good fun for both parties, other times it gets out of hand and one party stops enjoying the fun and is clearly asking for an “end” to the game – at such times, we need to respect their feelings and stop the game.
  • teach children to express things from their own point of view by using “I” statements rather than blaming others. For example, “I felt mad when you said that to me”.
  • teach children to learn how to ask for help. Help them focus on finding a solution to the problem rather than focussing on the problem. If you’re not sure, ask for help or clarity.
  • give children the right to change their minds without feeling bad about it.
  • teach children to recognise potential danger, for example, standing up to a bully rather than allowing the bullying to continue.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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