Teens Will Listen to Peers Before Parents
Education: A teacher finds that kids will heed
the rules they themselves set.
by Carol Jago
Are your students misbehaving? Teacher handbooks, school of
education gurus and school administrators agree: The first
course of action for the frazzled teacher is to get on the phone
to parents. If a student disrupts class, tell his parents to make
him stop. If a child is lazy, ask them to help you get him
working. But new psychological research suggests that this classic
tack is a waste of everybody's time.
In her book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Harris,
self-styled nonacademic and author of college textbooks on child
development, now suggests that it is peers much more than parents
who shape children's behavior. Mom and dad provide the genes, but
beyond that there is minimal connection between their own and
their child's character.
Harris' research, which has been praised by such luminaries
as Stanford's Robert Sapolsky and MIT's Steven Pinker, explodes
the myth that children are influenced by a combination of nature
and nurture. She argues that 50 years of focusing on child-rearing
techniques as the basis for understanding children's behavior has
blinded psychologists to the influence peers have in shaping
character. Harris calls this the "nurture assumption."
While the American Psychological Association reels over the
implications of her theory, no high school teacher I know will be
much surprised. Like many of my colleagues, I have never had much
luck changing student behavior through parent intervention. More
often than not, I dial the phone hoping to get help with
persuading a teenager to exhibit a bit of self-control and instead
find myself counseling frustrated parents. Mothers tend to
apologize profusely as though they are the ones who have let me
down. Fathers interrupted at work assure me that everything will
be "handled." I worry that rather than solving a problem, I have
created a new one.
Over time, I have learned to save the dime and deal with
misbehaving students through their peers. It helps to begin the
school year with a set of student-designed behavior standards.
Inevitably, the rules students write are the same ones that I
could have dusted off and handed out from last year, but it makes
a huge difference to have each class determine for themselves what
civilized behavior will look like within their classroom. "No
throwing things. Pay attention when someone else is talking. No
writing on the desks. Come on time. Bring pens, paper and books.
No swearing." When students transgress, it is their own rules they
are breaking. A disruptive individual violates standards of
behavior he had a hand in shaping. And students who behave are
conforming not to the suspect authority of an adult, but to rules
set by their own peers.
Of course, only a fool -- or someone who has never spent much
time around teenagers -- would believe that this technique always
results in perfect harmony and yearlong cooperation. Ninth graders
were born to try their parents' and teachers' patience. But the
focus has shifted from pleasing us to pleasing their peers.
Harris posits that whatever our parents do to us, for better
or for worse, is ultimately overshadowed by what our peers do to
us. Most children don't want to be like their parents, and they
certainly don't want to be like their dusty old teachers. They
want to be successful children. With a bit of cunning and a lot of
love, we just may be able to help them be both.
Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs
the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She can be
reached at Jago@gseis.ucla.edu