Double take: Parents freeing children from responsible behavior

Dear Dr. Wes and Ben: I’m a parent and working on a blog post about how kids influence each other’s behavior (or don’t — as is sort of my point). I am an avid “Double Take” reader and am pulling from your article on peer pressure. How would you adapt your message about the limits of peer pressure to little children? I am noticing an annoying trend among my playgroup parents to blame every undesirable behavior their kid has on someone else. I say that these moments offer learning opportunities for parents to talk about rules and expectations, but ultimately the child must own his or her behavior. I am tired of this “our family vs. the awful world” attitude.

Wes: We don’t usually do columns on kids younger than 12, but your point is so relevant to later development, and one we’ve often try to make, that I couldn’t resist. Most folks are quite certain that at some earlier time in history, someone lived in “the good old days.” Then when you read the literature from those days you find the people living then were pretty sure the world was going straight to hell and taking all of them with it. So, I usually greet with skepticism the idea of annoying new trends. While you’re making a fine point, as a newer parent you may be seeing for the first time something the rest of us have had lots of time to adapt to.

The problem stems from a well-known psychological principle: the self-serving bias, in which we tend to attribute our successes to internal or personal factors and our failures to situational factors beyond our control. And who better to blame for bad stuff than those around us? In fact, there is considerable research suggesting people who master this bias are less depressed than those who see all problems as their fault.

That said, I share your concern that a fundamental failure to take personal responsibility ultimately leads to serious behavior and personality problems, especially as children enter the teen years. Those who do not develop a healthy view of how their behavior impacts themselves and others will be perceived as shallow and lacking in empathy by peers and adults. Moreover, teens who are constantly externalizing blame to “peer pressure” may grow into that habit as adults, and nothing spoils mature personal and romantic relationships faster than an over-reliance on blame.

Just as you’ve pointed out, that lesson starts at home. It’s one thing to say “well it couldn’t be helped” to protect your ego. It’s another to lash out at everything and everyone around you. One might argue there’s quite a bit of that going on nationally right now, which is also nothing new. We just have more media to cover it. Yet, that level of vitriolic externalization subtly reinforces the same behavior in children.

I suggest parents expect their children to take responsibility for their actions, or at the very least to not insulate themselves from mistakes by pointing the finger at others. Your philosophy of using those moments to teach is a fine one, and I suspect you’ll be having a lot less trouble with your kids when they’re 15 than some of the parents in your playgroup.

Ben: Every age group has bad influences. I won’t deny that these have an effect of some kind, but I do believe that parents have overblown the impact. A portion of this is rooted in healthy concern, but I suspect that we often take legitimate concerns and stretch them to suit us. For instance, parents may extend reasonable concern about the safety of their kids to scare away anyone threatening to date their son or daughter. Similarly, I feel that the peer pressure concern has been generally overextended for another purpose.

I agree with Wes that parents have the greatest potential to influence their kids’ behavior, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly. I also suspect that many parents are aware of this and, as a result, feel threatened when anyone else steps into their realm of influence. The obvious result of this is excess anxiety; the less obvious result is a cop-out. After all, it is so much easier to blame the neighbors’ kid than to sit yours down and lay out what’s right and what’s wrong.

The overextension of peer pressure trips up parents and kids alike. Kids raised under the “my family versus the awful world” idea will quickly pick up on what their parents might miss: the shirking of personal responsibility. In music, a soloist feels responsible for the accuracy of every note he sings. In a choir, however, some singers feel their mistakes are lost among the other members. The mistake is not his fault, it is the section’s, and he can hide behind that statement. In the same way, when a parent starts to blame the “awful world” for her kid’s behavior, the kid starts to hide behind that “awful world” as an excuse.

As I said in the last peer pressure column, the ultimate combatant for this is a good set of roots. If a kid knows what is right and, more importantly why, then he will benefit in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Next week: Can this relationship be saved?

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to doubletake@ljworld.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.

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