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Positive Peer Pressure

Jill Nelson

Peer pressure. Say those two powerful words, and they can strike fear in your heart! But add the word "positive" and you have a tool that will help kids learn...to make the best choices. Positive peer pressure. These three words pack a powerful punch -- just the kind of positive punch we want in children's lives to help them make good decisions when we're not around. It's important to understand the nature of positive peer pressure and take action to foster its benefits.

"Peer influences are normal and necessary in our lives," says Liisa Hawes, marriage and family counselor with the Calgary Community Learning Association. She adds that our peers support our sense of self and offer us a sense of belonging. Peers begin to affect us at a young age.

"I have a 3-year-old daughter who couldn't sit still for mealtimes if it were just us," says Chris Lister, a mother and preschool teacher's aid. "But when she was in her classroom, she willingly sat with a group of her peers to eat and 'chat' in her limited vocabulary. She seemed to eat better in this setting, too."

The beneficial influence of peers continues into adulthood. If we ask ourselves why we do what we do, we'll admit that many of our choices come from the groups we hang out with -- even as adults. For example, when we go to work or church, most of us wear clothes that fit that environment. We all have a basic need for acceptance, and that's why peer pressure works -- whether it's positive or negative.

What The Bible Says

We can find a great definition of positive peer pressure in Hebrews 10:24: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." The Greek word that translates to "spur" in this verse is paroxusmos, meaning "incitement." Incite means "to provoke to action." In addition, paroxusmos provides the basis for a great but seldom-used English word "paroxysm," which means "a sudden attack or outburst." The word "consider" in Hebrews 10:24 means to give serious, deliberate thought about a specific topic. So the meaning of the entire verse becomes clearer with the understanding of these words.

God commands us to consciously plan ways to incite one another to outbursts of goodness. This is positive peer pressure at its best! It's like a riot of positivity! An examination of the gospels reveals the amazing fact that if it weren't for positive peer pressure, Peter might not have followed Jesus. In John 1:40-42, we learn that Peter's brother, Andrew, was among John the Baptist's followers. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:35-36), the first person Andrew ran to tell was Peter. Scripture records that Andrew "brought" Peter to meet Jesus, implying that Andrew used some degree of persuasion. At first sight, Jesus looks straight into Peter's uncommitted heart and declares him to be a rock. Once Jesus makes this heart-to-heart connection, Peter attaches himself to Jesus. But it likely wouldn't have happened without Andrew's positive peer pressure.

From Negative To Positive

We can actually use positive peer pressure to help kids defuse situations such as bullying. Susan, age 14, was in tears. Other girls at school teased, "you're just like a boy," because she loves athletics. Then the situation got worse. They stopped talking to her because she dared to have lunch with another girl this "in group" had ostracized. "I wouldn't mind so much if it wasn't a church school," she sobbed to her mother. They're supposed to be Christians."

"Why don't you start your own group for outcasts?" Susan's mother suggested. "After all, that's what Jesus told us to do -- go to those outside."

Susan followed her mother's advice and, within a week, a group of seven girls were fast friends. Of course, as a group of their own, the others' teasing no longer mattered much. In another case, Genetta Adair tells a story about her friend's son, Brad, and a new kid in school named Matt. Matt thought swearing would make him sound cool and help him make friends. Brad, however, boldly told Matt that kind of talk didn't impress him. Quickly, Matt's behavior changed.

"I'm glad for Brad's courage to speak up," Genetta says. "Brad could've just shunned Matt and never had a positive influence on him. With that choice, though, Brad would've missed out on a great friendship." Brad and Matt's interaction is an example of positive peer pressure helping someone change a negative behavior. Positive peer pressure can also encourage friends to do things that are good for them, even if they're reluctant to take the plunge. My daughter, Elizabeth, was looking for her niche in high school. She thought about trying out for the dance-line team. But because she'd had some bad experiences with new things in the past, she was nervous about failing. Thanks to encouragement and a few tips from friends, Elizabeth not only made the team but also won an award at dance-line camp for her performance. She's happy she listened to her friends, and the experience still motivates her to excel.

What To Do

Follow these helpful tips to encourage positive peer pressure with the kids you minister to.

Tip 1: Build relationships. As Christian educators, we may lose sight of the fact that we are kids' shepherds -- not just their teachers. Help kids find healthy relationships at church that they can depend on outside of church. If your church is large, help kids discover who the other kids are who attend their school. Plan activities outside of church where kids get to have fun together. Give parents class rosters so they can arrange connections between their kids and others at church. Spend a significant part of your class time letting kids get to know each other and pray for one another. Celebrate friendships at church!

Tip 2: Show Jesus as the peer kids can trust. Patty Hall, a Sunday school teacher, tells how this principle worked in her young life and later in her classroom: "When I was growing up during the late '70s, a lot of things were going on -- drugs, sex, etc. But whenever I left our house, my mother would kiss me goodbye and say, 'Remember, Sweetheart, if Jesus came tonight, would you be ashamed of where he might find you?' Ouch! I don't know how many times that kept me out of harm's way." Patty continues, "It still works! When I was teaching the high schoolers at our church, at the end of each class I'd remind them of the phrase my mother ingrained in me throughout my youth. I didn't think it was getting through to them. But one day, a girl known for her wildness told me how much that little phrase helped her. She used it to stay clear of trouble, and she turned her life back over to the Lord."

Tip 3: Lead kids in role-plays. We all tend to learn by repetition and practice. Role-playing exercises in Sunday school give kids opportunities to experience possibilities of what they might do or say in real-life situations. Propose various scenarios that involve kids in every type of positive peer pressure: changing or avoiding harmful behavior, daring to do something they've never done before, and resisting negative peer pressure. Then debrief each role-play with kids to point out the positive things they did or said.

Tip 4: Issue a positive peer pressure challenge. Make it a game for kids to watch for positive peer pressure in action in their everyday lives and then report these incidents back to your class. Affirm children who are brave enough to share. Examples from children's experiences are often the best teachers of all. With positive peer pressure, we can help our kids master a new tool to keep their lives on track with God. Positive peer pressure can help them stay clear of trouble and "spur one another on to love and good deeds."

Jill Nelson is a children's minister in Madison, Minnesota.


Friendship Checklist

One of the key ways we can foster positive peer pressure is to help children choose friends wisely. Good friends have kids' best interests in mind and help them become better people. When kids hang out with the right crowd, they're less likely to step into harmful behaviors and attitudes. The strong, sensible values of the group win out. In my own parenting, I've found that I really can't choose my children's friends for them, but that doesn't make me a helpless bystander. This brief Friendship Checklist can help you determine if you're helping kids choose good friends.

__ Am I listening with wisdom and love to what kids say about their friends? What do they say about their friends' personalities, the things they like to do together, or their home lives?

__Do I communicate with kids about my childhood friends -- why I picked them and what made them good or bad choices?

__Have I talked with kids about the many times Scripture addresses the influence friends have on their lives -- both positive and negative? (Proverbs 22:24-25; Proverbs 27:6)

__Do I deliberately place kids in environments where they have the best opportunity to form peer relationships that reinforce Christian values?

Friendship Across The Ages

The concept of friendship is unique at each age. Follow these age-specific guidelines to help kids form positive friendships.

(ages 2 to 5) Everyone who ministers to children this age has witnessed the heartbreak of the child told, "We don't want you at our table." To promote inclusion of withdrawn or rejected kids, plan activities that encourage everyone to participate. Focus on cooperation and teamwork rather than competition and the elimination of "losers." Vary the sizes of work and play groups. The shrinking violet of the large group may blossom in a more intimate setting. Don't allow children to choose their game leaders or group members. Use arbitrary designators such as clothing color to form teams. Use simply worded Scripture verses that provide guidelines for building friendships.

(ages 6 to 9) By this age, most children have learned social skills and have circles of friends at school, at church, and on sports teams. They've participated in sleepovers and been invited to birthday parties. However, there are always some children who still feel they don't fit in. You may have to be the first to befriend a withdrawn or rejected child; the teacher's pet at this age is usually highly esteemed by children. Encourage participation from everyone in class activities. Point out opportunities for friendly expressions to other children. Include less popular children in groups or teams where their special abilities can shine.

(ages 10 to 12) As kids this age draw away from adults and long for approval and acceptance of their peers, those whose social development has lagged behind are likely to experience loneliness and isolation. Some shy children will be blessed with gregarious friends who'll draw them out and provide valuable models of positive character traits. Other lonely children, desperate to be part of any group, may be willing to accept abuse and be coerced into negative behavior such as shoplifting or drug use. Teach kids biblical accounts of loyalty and lasting friendships, such as the bond between David and Jonathan, the devotion of Ruth to Naomi, and the unity of Daniel and his companions in captivity. Provide opportunities for fun and fellowship. Encourage friendship with other young Christians who can provide spiritual support. Promote involvement in church programs and teams. Steer preteens toward participation in church youth group activities. Adolescence is a time when a child's self-esteem can take hard hits. Be there with the comforting message that God's love endures forever. -- Robert Choun Jr.


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