When I was a teenager I whole heartedly rejected my parents and their views on life. I didn’t want to be seen with them or even associate with the family. I cared much more about what my peers thought and I tried desperately to fit in with them. I verbally offended my family and my actions were probably much more offensive. My parents were hurt and embarrassed. Their friends felt that they must have done something wrong if I was being so rebellious. It wasn’t true.
Retrospectively, I know that my parents did a marvellous job and their patience and commitment to me during rough patches is remarkable. What actually happened was that I switched my orientation point through which I made my decisions. I made decisions that I thought would please my peers. My parents wishes were not the same as my peers so subconsciously I understood that to be accepted by my peers I had to reject my parents. And I did.
I wasn’t trying to find my own way, as many would argue, rather, I was looking to be accepted.
And I preferred to be accepted by my friends instead of my parents even though my friends acceptance was conditional, and whimsical. My parents acceptance was unconditional and foundational. I don’t know at what point I switched from being adult orientated to peer orientated but I see this same scenario, of good families being rejected by lost teenagers, in schools regularly. Many don’t turn out as well as my own story did.
There are a numbers or reasons that children become peer orientated on a regular basis in our public school system. The ratio of adults to children in school buildings make it hard for each child to have a meaningful connection with an adult to whom they can turn in times of difficulty and therefore increases their chances of turning to a peer when times get tough. Peer relationships can be helpful in some difficult circumstances but eventually each child will encounter a difficulty which is beyond their years and then no peer is of help but if they have been turning to peers consistently in the past they will tend to turn to them again. They will trust a peer, when the peer isn’t mature enough to be trusted because they don’t have a proven connection with an adult who is actually capable and in a position of helping them.
This breakdown of connection with adults happens over time and circumstances. In the primary years, most children are quite connected with their teacher but the connections are not maintained as teachers, principles, and supervisors transition from class to class and school to school. The students do not have a constant adult to help them through school other than their own parents and the parents are usually removed from the situation thus rendering their advice and involvement less helpful than if it were an adult present to the situation.
In the early years most students are still adult orientated making them quite easy to teach but by the time they reach high school a large percentage of them have become peer orientated and thus teaching them is sometimes akin to teaching a mob. If you can get the leader moving in the right direction the rest will follow, but for the teacher who can’t get the leader to move in the right direction a year long battle against the class will ensue.
When teaching high school PE, within the first week, I try and can quite easily identify which child is the most powerful individual in the room. The most powerful student is the one whom the rest know they must be accepted by in order to fit in with the larger group. Once I have identified that individual or group, I then spend the next few weeks working to get him or her on board with what I want to accomplish. If I can get that one child in each class to orient on me, I know that the rest of the year will run smoothly. If that powerful individual refuses to buy in, I know intuitively that it will be a difficult class to teach because each child will have to choose between pleasing me or their powerful peer. If the powerful student is actively opposed to what I am trying to do they will get as many children on their side as possible and the collection will have enormous influence on the climate of the class. The children who choose to please me, rather than join the group, may be ignored or bullied by the group as a means to get them to join the group as they defy the adult in the room. A child may be strong enough to resist the peer presure in that particular class, especially if I can give them special attention, but the relentless comments and looks make them more likely to join the group in the coming years for the subsequent teachers.
I can’t blame the children for being peer orientated in class because if they don’t follow their leader, they too will have quite a difficult term. I don’t want my child to face the choice between pleasing a teacher and pleasing a peer; both outcomes have undeniable negative consequences in a school setting. If you please your peers, you risk following the crowd wherever it goes. If you please your teacher, you risk being shunned by your peers. It is an unfair choice for any child to face; a choice I don’t want my son or daughter to face. It is a choice that most every student I have ever taught has faced at some point at school. As a teacher, I tend to be able to get the kids to orient on me, even if it takes a few weeks. Most teachers can. But change rooms, lunch hour, recess, bus rides and days with substitutes are a different scenario altogether.
I know that by keeping my children home when they are younger is no guarantee that they won’t become peer orientated as teenagers. They will grow up and get to make choices of their own. They will have friends and they will want to please them. I know that at some point they will make choices that don’t align with what I would hope for them. I am OK with that. That is a part of life. But by keeping them home from school, they will not have to choose between whimsical peers and transient adults on a daily basis. They will not have to turn to a peer for support in difficult times because there is no adult around with whom they have had a long term connection with the time to help them with their particular issue. They will not have to choose regularly between pleasing their teacher and being bullied by a powerful peer. Rather, they will have an adult who is available to help them whenever they personally need it. They will have an adult connection that is constant, unconditional, and loving. And this adult will be primarily concerned with their personal long term development when planning each day.
By homeschooling my wife and I can let our children experience unconditional love and acceptance in a practical daily manner that could never be matched by school.
For further reading on peer orientation and its pervasiveness in society read “Hold Onto Your Kids” by Gordon Neufeld.