Kids are different when they’re in a pack

Dog Baring TeethI’ve been parenting for almost sixteen years now (that’s over 5000 days) and it still surprises me to see how different my kids are when they’re in a group – or even all together – versus how they are as individuals. You’ve probably seen this too, I’m betting: your child is friendly and easy when it’s just the two of you but add other people and the dynamic changes. Add other kids to the mix that aren’t part of your family and it can be a marked, dramatic difference, and not always for the better.

What got me thinking about this was an incident a few weeks ago when my son invited a friend of his to join us on a trip to the Zoo. A fun place, we always have a good time, and bringing along someone to share in the adventure seemed like a great idea.

But I forgot to factor in the human desire to establish pecking order as embodied in children: be cool and prove yourself.

Mix in a liberal dose of “my parents are the most embarrassing in the world” and it can be a rather volatile mix.

So in fact, while this other boy was a pleasure to have along on the trip, my son was pulled to the dark side and I got a chance to marvel at how much his desire to look “cool” to the other (older) boy influenced his behavior for the worse.

He was snarky, sarcastic, rude, and surprisingly uncooperative, with lots of eye rolls and big sighs thrown in for good measure. Nothing that would make me want to send him to join the Foreign Legion 🙂 but compared to his usual cheery, cooperative self, it was startling.

I’ve been thinking about it since then and surmise that this sort of “proving yourself” is a critical part of learning how to stand up to peer pressure in the larger context, and being able to find your own identity as you move into adulthood. I think we’re all susceptible: If I’m in a group of people who have strongly different beliefs and opinions, it’s more difficult – and potentially awkward – for me to espouse my own views than if I’m in a group of like-minded peers.

I wasn’t upset with my son over the situation, well, not too upset, but rather a bit disappointed. After the fact, I was bummed that I’d been disappointed in him. In fact, I think he’s at the cusp at 12yo of a very difficult transition from being a child where your opinions are muchly led by your parents and older influencers to an age where you have your own opinions and defend your own views. What I want to appreciate is that he’s going through this transition and to support him being strong enough to hold his own ground, defend his own views and make his own – hopefully smart! – decisions.

But part of the complexity is that it seems kids don’t see themselves in this situation. When asked afterwards, he simply said he felt I had been a bit of a jerk to him, being too strict and (unstated, though obvious) committed the cardinal sin of embarrassing him in front of this other boy he wanted to impress.

The fascinating irony of the situation? The other boy has a mostly absent father, is hungry (according to his mom) for a strong male role model in his life, and tells his Mom how much he appreciates my strict rules and sense of order.

Ah, who knew being a parent was so complex and nuanced? 🙂

How about your kids? How do they change when there are other children around and in what ways do you like and appreciate what happens, and in what ways does it drive you crazy?

2 comments on “Kids are different when they’re in a pack

  1. Great observations. I remember being a lot like your son at that age. My parents provided a very strict and disciplined structure (that my friends’ parents appreciated) that I usually adhered to without too much conflict, but when I had friends around it’s like my guard was up.

    Glad you’re a positive male role model for other kids who need it too. Your son is blessed to have you.

    Keep up the good work.

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