7-14 Years…Kids…the peer group and establishing fluency

The second seven-year period from ages 7 to 14 years is where the child develops a sense of group norms and expectations.  This is where they learn how to interact and socialize with their peers and the world.  Thus, the most important reference is their peer group.  Kids at this age will live up or down to the expectations and norms of the peer group.  Parents need to be attentive to and guide which peers their child spends time with and in what environment or activity. 

Parents, at this stage, are going to pay!  So, the question is; for what and when are you going to pay? 

If you let your kid run the streets and hang out in the alleys without supervision or guidance, the child will learn the way of the streets and “thug life.” The child will want to fit in with the ruffians and will be required to perform some illegal or immoral act to fit in and be accepted as a member of this group.  These behaviors and social interactions required by the ruffian peer group and will become part of the child’s sense of self.  Parents, sometime later, you might be paying for therapy, juvenile court cost and perhaps drug and alcohol treatment.  On the other hand, parents that are attentive, guide and ensures that their child participates and is active with "good" peers.  Peers who participate in organized sports, church youth groups or perhaps scouting and etc.  Again, your child will want to fit in and will live up to the expectations of the "good" peer group.  However, you will need to make the upfront sacrifice and investment in terms of time, money and participation.  The clear expectation is that they will participate in these activities.  The trick is to find something that your child enjoys and then both you and your child will have to make the commitment. You will need to be attentive to opportunities of how your youth can also invest in their passion and then encouraging them to figure out how to make it happen.

Examples from raising three kids:  It was expected that they were to be involved in some respectable activities.  The two boys started out in Cub Scouts and my daughter the youngest, started out as a Brownie Scouts. All at one point wanted to quit scouting, which was fine.  However, the question to them was “what other activity are you going to commit to?”  They all ended up choosing to remain in scouting. The eldest attained his Eagle Scout, the middle son could care less about badges and ranks but enjoyed camping, hiking and outdoor activities.  The youngest became a Girl Scout troop leader and now even in her 20’s she will participate in various volunteer Girl Scout activities.  We also expected that all three of them would be involved in some kind of physical activity.  The eldest was involved in soccer and hockey.  The middle guy was in to strength conditioning and mixed martial arts.  And the youngest loved to ski and snowboard.

Truth be told, I had a much better understanding and handle on working with the youngest.  When she was in 4th grade, from day one on the snow, it was obvious that she loved the snowy life. Beginning in fourth and fifth grade, we made the sacrifices to ensure that she had the opportunities to snowboard.  Then during fifth grade, it was made clear that she understood that she would needed to start investing in her snowboard activities.  So the agreement was made she would buy her own seasons pass starting in sixth grade.  She earned enough money pet sitting, doing yard work and household chores for neighbors, friends and family.  My commitment was to match each dollar she earned to buy new/used snowboard gear.  Additionally, I would ensure that she got to the mountain most every weekend during the ski season. 

Back to socialization and peers, this stage often involves cliques, pecking order, social competition, bullying, social drama and the beginning interest in the opposite sex.  So how does a parent help their youth during this phase?  Especially, when the major influence or leverage is seemingly with the peers.

Remember that you are encouraging them to be in some activity and they need your help.  And you want to be attentive to their peer group.  In order to do this, you make the self-sacrifice to be involved.  This might entail being an assistant coach, helping with carpooling, helping with their activities.  By being actively involved, you get to know the other kids and you will have some insight into the social environment.  Another way is food; kids at this age love to snack and eat.  Make your home a place to stop and eat.  Invite their friends to hang out, to stay for dinner and for sleepovers.  This way your kid’s peers will get to know you and your expectations and you will get to know them.  Another opportunity is that kids need rides.  There is an opportunity to drive the peer group to activities.  When kids piled in the car, after a few moments, they forget you are there and you get to hear all kinds of social drama.

Now that you have access to the peer group remember that the developmental task is group norming and socialization.  When you notice your kid is happy, angry, sad, distraught, mad or whatever…merely ask some questions.  Questions, such as, “geez you look mad/sad/frustrated…what happened?  The approach is to primarily listen and ask just a few questions.  Often, at this stage, it’s the result of some social drama.  Kids are still willing to talk and share with parents.  Merely listen with an empathic ear…but do not interrogate, advise or lecture. 

After listening, ask rhetorical questions to get them to think about why their peer might behave the way they did; about what pressures they might have; what they did and how might your kid might navigate the social interaction or drama.

The standard questions are:  Why do you think (peer) did that?  How does that make you feel?  How do you think you should/would handle the situation?  What do you want to do?  How might you try to do it?  The goal is to get your kid to start assessing the social situation, gaining some insight into the possible agendas and pressures of why their peers might behave a certain way.  Get them to think about what might be an appropriate social response to their peer situation.   Realize that underlying social interactions, are usually driven by emotions and understanding the emotional basis is important in social skills development.  The emotions of wanting to belong, fear, frustration, anger of being included or excluded.  Thus as a parent, it is important to listen empathically to support your kid’s learning about how to manage and navigate their social world.  A lot of the peer and social interactions are about inclusion or exclusion of cliques amongst peers, competition, cooperation, collaboration or collusion, pecking order and influence among the peers have an emotional base.

The parental task is to help your kid to understand the social dynamics and emotional aspects of their culture in order to navigate within their peer group and later in the larger society and community.

A few things to keep in mind, remember structure.  Kids like clear expectations, clear consequences and the bottom line.  Again, structure gives the kid the parameters or rules to work with.  Sometimes you get a sense that your kid feels pressured to do something that they might not want to do.  Such as go to a sleepover, a party or school dance.  When your kid is not able to set the parameters or boundaries to say “no” to their peers, then as their parent, by proxy, you can say no for them.  Thus they can save face in their peer group.  It will give them the time to develop their social identity, skills and strength to do it later on.  It is an opportunity to help them develop the emotional and social skills.  In a sense by saying “no” for them, you are providing supportive structure, that on their own they have not yet developed. 

At this stage, discipline is about providing support to promote the learning to observe, assess and make decisions.  It is the beginning of responsibility.  Discipline is not about taking something away, but of earning the privilege.  It is about the awareness of choice, the responsibility of choices made and the awareness of the consequences of the choice.  You are setting the stage for them to learn from and navigate their social environment.  The parental leverage during this stage is physical grounding, electronic grounding (cell phone, internet privileges) and the age old leverage of being an embarrassing parent.  On the other hand, your home can be the welcoming (but structured) kid hang out and be the cool mom/dad that is “active/attentive at a distance (not the helicopter parent).”   An example might be that you help the kids and show them how to fix their bikes, repair and mount skies or even have your kitchen be at the mercy of the cookie/brownie/pizza making.  Want to herd cats?…have tasty cat treats! 

At this socialization stage; the self, world and the future is in relationship with their peer.  Their group is their World.  The future and time is in relation to the group’s activity.

Opportunity for Fluency

This stage also presents the opportunity to start establishing fluency.  It could be academic, artistic, performance, athletic or any number of skillful endeavors.  A kid that has or shows some strong interest in something might be encouraged with opportunities to participate in their area of interest or passion.  A tutor, coach or mentor can help establish a level of fluency in short order.  Fluency at this age is in part due to physiologic and neurological development.  Kids are growing and setting neurological pathways.  It is easier to develop these pathways during development growth than to establish or change them later.  The usual example is of a particular sport or foreign language.  A kid learning a foreign language during this time verses later after puberty is much easier and kids often develops a natural or innate fluency that if done later is difficult to achieve.   The same concept applies to all kinds of skills development.  Whether its language, math, art, writing, music or sports.  It also applies to the more nebulous concepts such as empathy, generosity, altruism or compassion.  If this opportunity is missed, it becomes more difficult to achieve a level of fluency later on after puberty.  During this stage, peers, the community and their environment has a significant influence.  It is important to be attentive to what your kid is exposed to in their environment. Retrospectively, it is often seen, that life-long paths are established during this time.

Refer back to James Hillman’s Acorn Theory, if a kid showing some potential or propensity for something; perhaps it is their calling or imperative.  It is important to pay attention to this potential.  If possible, support and encourage the exposure to and opportunities for their passion.  In a sense, you have a special plant, that if grown in a well-suited garden environment and climate, they will thrive, flourish and produce wonderful harvests.