One of my favorite comics is “For Better or For Worse,” which I read daily. It involves a dentist, his working wife, and their two kids. In a recent series Elizabeth, one of the children, wants her ears pierced. She is quite young and her mother does not approve, admonishing her to wait until she’s a bit older. But the child goes to school each day where her friends brag about their own pierced ears and tease her about her lack of piercings. The pressure on the child is immense and, like most children in her situation, she feels like an outsider and is hurt by her classmates and their taunting.
But what is also involved, and which the creator of this comic strip is aware of, is the pressure on the mother. She feels strongly that it is not appropriate for her young daughter to pierce her ears, but she hurts when she sees her daughter crying and knows how important it is to her to be accepted by her peers. This is a situation so many mothers are put into daily in our society where acceptance by peers determines in so many cases a child’s sense of self-worth.
There are a couple of problems here, of course. To begin with, a child’s sense of self-worth should not be determined by what a group of her peers thinks or says. In addition, a mother’s sense of what is appropriate should be the last word. After all, she is older and has the perspective of years of experience; she knows what is best for her daughter — presumably. But this is the “real” world where children tease and bully one another and now, with social media, broadcast around the fact that one of their peers is not “with the program.” In a recent post I mentioned how a young girl felt that she was lost if her friends didn’t “like” her every post on social media. She knew this was wrong somehow, but there it was: her sense of self-worth was wrapped up in what a group of her friends thought and said about her on twitter or Facebook. It’s an absurd situation on its face. But it is a fact of life.
In the best of all possible worlds, the mother in the comic strip would hold the line and simply wait until her daughter got over the crisis of the moment. After all, a child’s entire life seems to be made up of a series of such crises. We fail to consider whether or not that is a bad thing: we simply assume it is. In that world, the mother would try to help her daughter learn that her self-worth was in no way dependent on what her peers think about her, but on the kind of person she is and will become. But children cannot be expected to follow such complex thinking – even if it is correct. And that’s the core of the problem. As long as we are convinced that children must be able to comprehend the reasons why they are being led to do the right thing — and that the right thing cannot simply be forced upon them — we will continue to give in to their whims.
On a larger scale, this is what is going on in our schools as well. Curriculum is determined in so many cases by what they kids enjoy on the grounds that if they are not having fun they are not learning. This is absurd, of course, since we have all learned a great many things we didn’t enjoy learning and at times the most valuable lessons are the ones we learn reluctantly. But we live in the Sesame Street era of progressive education where we have become convinced that children should be entertained and their feelings are paramount; that they should never fail or be subjected to painful experiences. These are powerful sentiments — as are the tugs of peer pressure.So, in the end, we have to give in to the Elizabeths of the world and let them have their ears pierced, even if we know it is inappropriate.
Hannah Arendt said many years ago that this is an avoidance of responsibility on the part of parents who should do what they know is best for their children — whether they like it or not. She applied the same rule to teachers in the schools. As she notes in her extraordinary book Responsibility and Judgment,
“. . . [among other things] progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change and improve the world?”
With age comes experience and, even at times, wisdom. Children cannot be expected to have this and they must be force-fed at times. It’s what is sometimes called “tough love.” But we have become so afraid of standing firm and trusting our own instincts that we are led by our own kind of peer pressure and out of sympathy with the children let them get their ears pierced even though we know it is not the right thing to do.