Peer pressure is generally considered a bad thing. We usually hear about it as some mysterious force that makes kids want to have premarital sex, do drugs, and so forth. It was certainly placarded as a major villain back when I was in school. However, the hyper-individualistic alternative that was proclaimed in response is really no better. We are apparently supposed to decide for ourselves what we want in a vacuum, free from the influences of others. We must find out what our heart tells us and follow it. Of course, many of us, when we looked deep within our hearts, still found that we wanted to have premarital sex and do drugs. To this, our culture has no further comments except, “as long as you’re sure that’s what you want…” This is not a chorus Christians should seek to join.
If you really look at humanity, it becomes clear that, rather than being an inherent evil, social pressure to conform is actually part of our design. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Humans were created to be social beings. What is more, we come into this world entirely dependent upon the care, nurturing, and training of others. Scripture does teach us that bad company ruins good morals, but it also teaches us that iron sharpens iron. It teaches that we ourselves must be taught. It exhorts the older to train the younger, and parents to raise up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If peer pressure is a bad thing, it is not because it unfairly puts individuals under the influence of others.
And yet peer pressure does persist as a danger in our society. Why? Perhaps the real problem is that our social circles tend not to extend far beyond our peers. To return to the stereotypical image, it’s always kids influencing other kids. I believe the reason for the stereotype is that we go to great lengths to sequester children with other children. For preschool through eighth grade, we keep children in rooms filled with other children of the same age, station, and in the case of schools with gifted/remedial programs, the same relative intelligence. High school and most 4-year colleges only change the relative age mix by +/- 2 years. If you throw in daycare in the early years, that takes care of most daylight hours. When they get home, they spend free time with their friends (who are usually the same age/station) or with media designed for their specific demographic. Churches, of course, have wholeheartedly thrown in with the educational model. Children move from Sunday school to confirmation class to youth group to young adult group to singles group to married group to parenting group. Our own little societies always stay in lockstep with their own social profile. Our families are now much smaller and the 2.5 children we think we can handle are usually grouped pretty closely together. Often, the only social time with people who are older and wiser or younger and in need of assistance is at the dinner table or some family game night–and these are likewise dying traditions among many families.
The long and short of it is that peer pressure is not all that different from the hyper-individualistic alternative. Given how youth are sequestered, the only alternative to looking into their own hearts is to look into other hearts that are as much like their own as possible. Parents and churches need to take a good long look at how they’ve been taught to raise up their descendants in the flesh and in the faith respectively. Thankfully, Christians do have places to look for guidance besides our peers. We have Scripture, our Lord is with us always, and for millennia, our ancestors in the faith have gone before us; their experience can aid us as we walk through this life. Perhaps it is time to end peer pressure by eliminating chronological segregation and broadening our children’s horizons–and our own.