My oldest son, who has just started kindergarten, has begun what was until recently a kinda cute phase of suddenly being embarrassed to be different from his peers. First he told me he wanted to be browner (his school has a majority of kids who are South Asian, East Asian, African-American, or mixed race). Then he begged for me to pack American cheese in his lunchbox instead of fresh mozzarella. Etc.
Then yesterday came a day that I knew would come, but I hoped would come later. I had my disabled son with me when I picked him up from school. I couldn’t leave my kid with disabilities in the car, so I carried him with me. As we walked back to the car, my oldest son picked up a stick and started slamming the car with it in a fury. I asked if he was angry and embarrassed that I brought his brother, and he said yes.
This was a heartbreaking moment. I was sad for my son with disabilities, whose mere presence is a source of shame. I was sad for my oldest son, who will have to put up with years of such moments of embarrassment, and perhaps teasing. Part of me wanted to say, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed of him! You should be proud!” But I just said that lots of siblings of disabled kids feels that way, and it won’t be the last time he feels it. He shouldn’t feel bad about it. But he won’t always be embarrassed, and I love him.
But it got me thinking – why do kids care so damn much what their peers think? Every parent knows this to be true. I can stand on my head and turn blue in the face asking my kid to do something. Nada. A peer does it, and presto change-o — it happens. Some people say it’s that kid’s feel safer saying no to the family. But I think it’s more than that. They feel compelled to imitate other kids, even when others aren’t teasing them. Kids end up with the accent of where they live, not their parents’ accent (to my current amusement). There is also that deep, deep humiliation that they can feel in front of their peers. Why the humiliation? Why the humiliation about one’s family, often?
I have read plenty of studies that have established the importance of peers, and I have read theories that peers are far more important in shaping the outcome of children than parents. Certainly, that parents are far less important than most people believe.
But I haven’t read a theory as to why this should be the case. Why is it so hard for parents to shape kids’ behavior? Why is it comparatively easy for peers to shape behavior? Why are kids usually embarrassed of their family in front of their peers ? Why are they usually not embarrassed of their peers in front of their families (there are exceptions, but it’s less frequent and intense)?
Allow me to engage in a bit a speculative psychology. I am just musing here, I haven’t done research on this.
I wonder if there isn’t an innate tendency to focus on peers instead of parents to discourage the idiosyncracies of families and encourage a more cohesive larger culture. If kids did whatever their parents told them, kids would grow up a lot different from one another. Each families’ idiosyncracies would be magnified. Society’s habits and mores would be more fractured. If kids are interested in imitating their peers, and want to avoid acting like their parents, however, society has more unified habits.
I remember first having this idea a while ago while readingPride and Prejudice. I read this passage about a sixteen-year-old female character:
“I have heard, indeed, that she is uncommonly improved within this year or two. When I last saw her, she was not very promising. I am very glad you liked her. I hope she will turn out well.”
“I dare say she will; she has got over the most trying age.”
I thought it was interesting that in Regency era England, someone who was sixteen was considered just past the most difficult age. Because you know, that’s pretty much how we might think of a sixteen-year-old. Which made me wonder if it is a universal tendency.
I know, I know. One line in a Jane Austen novel and a realization that kids like to learn from each other doesn’t tell us anything. I’m just musing. Either way, my typical kids will sometimes be embarrassed of my kid with disabilities, sometimes they will drive me nuts by not listening to the sanest of advice, sometimes they will follow the stupidest of fads, and that’s that. But, I do wonder: Evolution, it would really be a big help with parenting my kids if you weren’t encouraging them not to listen to me?