When my son, Jamie, was 5 years old, he came home from kindergarten one day with a request: Could I buy him a black Spider-Man backpack like the kind his buddy Max has? He no longer wanted to take his plain gray bag to school, even though he'd begged me to buy it a few months earlier. When I asked why he no longer liked his bag, the whole story came pouring out: Max had said that Jamie's backpack was boring and, in order to be his friend, he needed to have the much-cooler superhero one.
I was prepared for Jamie to have to deal with peer pressure in high school, middle school, maybe even third grade. But in kindergarten, no way. Could it be that kids who still need to hold their mom's hand to safely cross the street are telling other children how to think, what to wear, whom to like -- and threatening to end their friendship if they don't dutifully comply? "Once kids are in kindergarten or first grade, they become much freer with their opinions, and they may try to talk their friends into being interested in the same things they are," explains Cynthia Langtiw, Psy.D., assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
The pushiness comes on two fronts: material things (the coolest backpacks, school clothes, notebooks) and social issues (the right game to play at recess, television show to watch, or way to wear their hair). How can you help your child stand up for her own preferences, and still have plenty of friends in class? Child-development experts offer these smart strategies for taking the pressure off right away, and for keeping it that way as your kid gets older.
Some kids don't even recognize peer pressure when it's happening, while others may be overly sensitive, says Fran Walfish, Ph.D., a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. Teach your child what peer pressure is and isn?t at this age so he knows how to react. For instance, explain that it's okay for a classmate to tell him about his Lego collection. But it's not acceptable for the classmate to say something like, "You can't play with us because you don't like Legos."
Or let your kid know that it's absolutely fine for a classmate to show off a snazzy new pencil case. But if he teases another student about her Hello Kitty pencil case being for preschoolers, that's plain wrong. "Explain that it's fun when friends share their new toys, games, and ideas with you, but it becomes peer pressure when they try to talk or tease you into changing what you like," says Dr. Walfish.
Children often give in to peer pressure because they feel they have no other choice if they want to have friends. But you can let your child know that it's not all or nothing and suggest a couple of ways to compromise. For example, she could say it's okay to say something like, "I'll play soccer with you at recess today if we can collect rocks together tomorrow" or "I don't want to wear a Hannah Montana T-shirt to school tomorrow. But Hannah wears headbands a lot on the show. Let's both wear our red sparkly headbands to school." Eventually, she might be able to come up with a solution on her own like my friend's 6-year-old daughter recently did. She was on a playdate at Build-A-Bear when her classmate picked out her hot-pink stuffed animal and said: "Make the same one. They could be twins!" Instead of getting a bear she didn't want, my friend's daughter replied, "If I make a different one, they could be BFFs." Problem solved.
Teasing isn't always part of peer pressure, but it usually is. If your kid is getting laughed at because he pulls Dora yogurt out of his lunch box or practices writing his letters in a kitten notebook, help him craft a clever (and kind) response and practice it through role-playing. "For instance, ask your child to pretend he's the one doing the teasing at the lunch table. When he recalls the zinger 'The Dora yogurt in your lunch box is for girls!,' say something back to him like, 'Maybe it is, but it's delicious! If I made the yogurt, I would put one of the superheroes on it instead,'" suggests Laurie Zelinger, Ph.D., a child psychologist and registered play therapist in Cedarhurst, New York. In addition, teach your child phrases that would work for any situation, such as, "I need to think about that" and "I'm not comfortable with that." Says Dr. Walfish, "These are ways for him to set boundaries without eliciting a harsh reaction."
Confident kids are much less likely to give in to their classmates' pushiness or second-guess their own opinions. Help your child feel good about her own preferences by frequently giving her opportunities to freely discuss her likes and dislikes with you, suggests Dr. Walfish. "Listening to her without judgment -- whether it's that pink is better than blue or broccoli is grosser than peas -- will also give her the confidence to speak her mind around friends and hold fast to what she likes," she says.
These picture books will help your kid understand why it's important to not give in to peer pressure.
A Bad Case of Stripes, by David Shannon - Kids will learn what happens when lima-bean-loving Camilla Cream allows others to change her rather than enjoy her favorite food.
Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes - A little mouse is proud of her flowery name, until her classmates' mocking becomes a thorn in her side. Luckily, their favorite teacher has a secret that will return her self-confidence.
Riding the Tiger, by Eve Bunting - Danny thinks that he has gained the respect of his new town when he hitches a ride on the back of a tiger. But he realizes the truth in this allegory about following the wrong crowd.
One of Us, by Peggy Moss - Looking for a group to join, Roberta James thinks that unless she totally conforms she'll never belong. But then she encounters a group that values being individuals.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.