Learning From a Group

One of the observations frequently made about adolescence is the way the peer group takes over as a major influence on children’s learning, both for better and for worse.  Imitation always plays a role in learning, but for teenagers the group sets the standard for the way to dress, speak, and behave.  Parents note with despair that the group has replaced them as the authority in all matters.

A recent New York Magazine article on parents of teenagers notes that it’s adolescents who stir up the most self-critical feelings in their parents.  “It’s adolescents who make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us.”  They make us question our parenting decisions and “make us wonder whether we’ve done things right.”

What is interesting about this observation is that much about adolescents is similar to two year olds.  The music may differ but the words are the same – especially the big NO.  What has become known as the “terrible twos”, and adolescence, are the two developmental stages that present the greatest challenge for parents.  The developmental task of both stages relates to self-identity. 

Two year olds are experiencing the sense of themselves as separate beings from their parents.  Their defiance at times stems from the need to establish that fact.  Saying “no”, is a clear and powerful demonstration that you are a person in your own right.  Children say “no” even when they mean “yes”, which is what often confuses parents.  Their conflict, however, is that they are still dependent people who need and want their parents’ love and approval.  Defiance as a means of establishing your separateness carries the risk of loss of love.

Adolescence once again is a time of establishing one’s separateness from parents.  And once again, establishing one’s own identity involves being different from one’s parents, a major purpose served by rebellion and defiance.  Teenagers, too, struggle with the conflict between dependence and independence.  Both adolescents and two-year olds are prone to some bravado about newly acquired skills and abilities.  With two-year olds, however, their reach exceeds their grasp, the source of frustration and meltdowns.  The problem is more challenging with adolescents, who often grow physically bigger than their parents, and may surpass parental knowledge, such as in  new technology.

A source of angst for parents of children in both groups is the feeling that authority has shifted away from them, in one instance to peers, and in the other to teachers and other adults.  Parents may be amused, and later annoyed, when they hear, “My teacher says,” or “That’s not the way my teacher does it.”  Familiar to parents of teenagers may be the complaint, “All the kids in my class are allowed to stay out later.” From early on, children put you in touch with the feeling that you are destined to become obsolete.

Yet at both stages of development, the group can prove to be an important forum for learning.  This is often more apparent in the nursery school years.  Although parents may feel that children are learning “bad” words or behaviors from other children, watching others can help them take next steps in development they may otherwise be finding a little difficult to take.  Many a child, who is resisting mom’s efforts at toilet training, has a change in attitude seeing what other children do during toileting times in nursery school.  

While observing in a class of not quite three year-olds, a little boy asked a mom who was still in class because of her child’s difficulty with separation, “Why you still here?”  Earlier in the year, the presence of one mother might have set off a chain reaction of needing mommy in many others.  However, this child was setting what was the more usual level of expectation for this class, setting an example for the child in question. 

There are many other ways in which a group, with children having different skills who are moving forward in different areas, can play a role in children’s learning.  During adolescence parents are more inclined to see the negative aspects of what children are learning from each other.  The positive side, however, is that through the group children can explore different self-images and different ways of being, as they try to find out for themselves who they are, and who they want to be.

As parents, it helps when we are sure of our own values and standards for behavior.  We continue to be primary models for our children – even though they often seem to reject that model as they struggle to find their own way.