Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Virtue, Peer Pressure and Homeschoolers

Like most conscientious parents, Tonya and I want our kids to grow up to be good. Yes, we want our kids to grow up academically and intellectually well-rounded; to have enough wisdom that they can successfully choose a well-fitting profession, and enough subject-matter mastery and competence that they can successfully see it through. But more than that, we want them to be good--to treat the people around them with compassion, especially those who are unpopular; to stand up for what is moral and ethical, even when it puts their careers in jeopardy; and to be unafraid to tilt at the occasional windmill, even when they're all alone, when there's no chance of success, the cost is high, and when everyone else is mocking them, but when it's nevertheless the right thing to do. There are after all some battles worth fighting even when it's obvious that defeat is inevitable.

But how does one develop these kinds of virtues in a child? This is not an easy question. I'm of the firm belief that virtues don't just spring up fully-grown. I want my children to have courage--the ability to keep their heads, to recognize and do what they need to, even in the face of danger or chaos. I want my children to have fortitude--the ability to keep doing what's right even in the face of severe hardship or adversity. I want my children to have honesty--the ability to tell the truth, completely and readily, even when such truth-telling will make them unpopular and even get them in trouble. But when I look at my three kids--and especially the one who'll be five at the end of this month, who's oldest and who thus has the most developed personality--I don't see much courage or fortitude yet. And as far as honesty goes, I don't think she tells too many outright fabrications yet, but I suspect we'll see more of them as she ages and starts testing more limits.

So yes, my kids were born with their share of Original Sin.

I note that all of these virtues that I've mentioned so far (and there are many others) tend to find opportunity for expression when the individual in question is swimming upstream, so to speak. After all, when everyone else nearby is being courageous, it's easy to be courageous right alongside them--if for no other reason than to avoid appearing as a coward. When everyone else is Speaking Truth To Power it's easy for you to do so as well. And in a tough situation, nobody wants to be the first to complain that This is so hard! for fear of appearing like a wimp. So in all of these cases, a person can easily do the right thing, even if he or she hasn't properly developed his or her virtues. But doing the right thing when everyone else finds the idea contemptible is much harder. When your entire company is looking to benefit from an underhanded deal, it takes a great deal of courage to tell the truth and do the right thing.

So in this sense, peer pressure is the opponent of all the virtues, because it can undermine any of them. And therefore, in learning to be virtuous, one must learn how to resist peer pressure.


Every homescooling parent knows the experience of being accosted by friends, relatives, or even perfect strangers, and having had the "Socialization Question" thrown in their faces--If you don't put your kids in a traditional school setting, won't your kids fail to acquire necessary social skills and cultural references, and be completely unable to interact with normal people when they grow up? Though I may take my own crack at this question in later posts, I think it's been answered well enough by plenty of people in the homeschooling community that I don't need to tackle the whole Question here.

(For any of my readers who aren't well versed in the lore of homeschoolers, peruse any dozen or so of the archived Carnivals of Homeschooling, and you'll find numerous takes on this question, ranging in tone from scientific (Studies have shown...), to weary (Ok, let's go over the evidence again...), to downright snarky (Yeah, like I really want my kids to wind up like those mall rats I see over there...).)

But there is one variant on The Socialization Question that I think is fair, and needs to be considered at length--and not just by homeschoolers, but by all parents who care about the moral well-being of their children. This version of the question goes like this:

Since your child is being raised in a sheltered environment, how is he or she going to learn how to resist peer pressure? We all know kids who were raised in good homes by loving parents, who then went off to college and completely self-destructed, losing their values, their discipline, their self-respect, their virginity, and their faith within a few years (or even months!) of leaving home. They couldn't possibly comprehend how hard the peer pressure would hit them when they finally left home, and so were completely unprepared for it. What makes you think your homeschooled child will be able to withstand the test? He or she has never been really tested before.

And it's important to note that this is indeed a fair question, and a serious one. But because it's a variant on the Socialization Question, I think we homeschoolers have a tendency to circle the wagons when this question comes along. And that's a mistake, in my opinion; this is a question for which we all need to have an answer. And when I say all, I don't just mean homeschoolers--this question affects public schoolers, private schoolers, Christian schoolers, the whole lot of us.


Here's my crack at answering this question.

First, there's an unstated assumption in the question that needs to be brought into the daylight. The assumption is that resistance to peer pressure is learned through resistance training, like bodybuilding. An athlete trains for strength by successively increasing the weights he or she lifts. As one weight level is mastered, more weights are added and the training continues at the new weight level. Exercising with these progressively heavier weights over time leads to progressively enhanced strength.

Is this a good model for developing the ability to say no to one's peers--Teach them to assert themselves against small temptations, then when they've mastered that, allow them to be subjected progressively to more potent temptations until they're deemed strong enough to handle anything they're likely to face in the adult world?

I'm not sure this is such a good idea. There may well be examples you can point out of people who faced great temptations in their younger days, overcame them, and have much stronger faith now. But for every one of these, I bet I can point to a person who "fell in with the wrong crowd", who faced temptations in their younger days and didn't overcome them, and whose parents are today wondering where they went wrong. The problem here is that the temptations that supposedly have the power to build a young person's moral strength, also occasionally have the power to destroy a young person's moral strength, and can do lasting damage.

And as a Christian, I can't help but note that this is not a character-building model endorsed anywhere in the Bible that I can remember. Now it is certainly the case that those who do overcome temptation are praised for doing so; but I can't remember any scriptural exhortation to put ourselves or our children intentionally in situations where we will be tempted to do the wrong thing, so that we can gain moral strength from the experience. Quite the contrary: numerous times the Bible uses the word flee in discussing what to do about temptations: Flee fornication (1 Cor 6:18), flee the worship of idols (1 Cor 10:14), flee materialism (1 Tim 6:11), flee youthful lusts (2 Tim 2:22). And one of the heroes of the Bible is honored for doing exactly that: the young Joseph, when in danger of seduction by Potiphar's wife, fled (Gen 39).

Furthermore, the Bible is loaded with warnings about picking the wrong peers. One obvious one is 1 Cor 15:33: "Do not be decieved: Bad company ruins good morals." And the book of Proverbs in particular is loaded with advice not to put oneself in bad situations by picking peers that could lead one astray.

If anyone can come up with a Biblical argument in support of the idea that we should intentionally subject ourselves or our children to situations where we will be tempted by our peers to do the wrong thing, all with the intention of making us stronger, I would like to hear from you. But I'm not seeing it anywhere.


So how is, say, a teenager supposed to build resistance to peer pressure?

The first thing that we adults need to realize is that most teens in our society inhabit a whole different world than the one we live in. I highly recommend this essay by Paul Graham--who, incidentally, is not a particular supporter of the homeschool movement--to get a sense of the problem. Society in Junior High, High School, and to some extent College operates under a whole different set of rules than adult society. A few illustrating points:
  • Stuffing a freshman in a trash can or a locker might buy you a brief suspension, but can greatly improve your social standing. But just try that as a software engineer on a young intern--you'll lose your job, and quite possibly go to jail.
  • Knowing how to sing Opera, as a high schooler, gets you mocked. Knowing it as an adult, garners some admriation, and questions from friends on what they should do if they want to improve their voices.
  • Very often, those people at the bottom of the social scene in High School--nerds, geeks--see their social status take a huge upward correction the moment they graduate and move on to college. Twenty years later, they're in high-paying engineer jobs.
  • And the opposite often happens. Those at the very top of the High School social scene--cheerleaders and jocks--often are so invested in that social scene that they can't transition to the adult world. Twenty years later, some of them will have morphed into the Al and Peg Bundys, constantly looking back wistfully on High School as the best times of their lives.

Now let's take a step back and consider the teen who's trying to stand up for what's right, against his peers. When a teen asserts himself against his peers, it is not necessarily the case--as some optimistic souls occasionally say--that this very act of assertiveness will gain him their respect. Very often the exact opposite happens. A person who says "no more" or "I will not" can become very unpopular very quickly. If the temptation being resisted is a sexual one, the very act of resisting can make the person into an object of mockery overnight. He can lose friends by standing up to them. He can, in certain circumstances, get himself beaten.

But this becomes a whole lot easier to take, if our teen isn't totally immersed in the teen culture. The fact is, so many of the moral laws we attempt to teach our children, really are Natural laws; that is, God gave us these laws because things fall apart in the real world if we don't obey them. All those commands about sexual purity, to grab one example among many, fall into this category. The less contact our kids have with the real world, the less sense these laws will appear to make to them. But the more our teens are in the real world, the more these natural laws make sense, the easier it becomes to see just how shallow and artificial the teen social scene is.

Consider the case where a young lady, age 16, is given an ultimatum from a peer: "If you keep spending time with her, I'm not going to consider you my friend anymore." Now suppose our young lady happens to have one foot in the real world--that is, she has friends who are World War II veterans; she has friends who are Vietnam veterans; she just got back from a four-week mission trip to Guatemala; she has many friends she made down at the local Battered Women's shelter; she has been to several city council meetings, has met the mayor, and knows one or two of the city council members; she's written pointed letters to her local congressman, and gotten real responses back; and she plays second trumpet in the local community orchestra. This young lady is in a good position to come back to her peer and say, "You know, I'd really like to be your friend and all, but you need to get over yourself. You're not all that." Because she has so many connections to the real world, her peer-dependence is much weaker than it would have been if the only people she knew were just like this "peer".


Understanding this fact, does bring good news to homeschoolers, but this good news is qualified with a challenge. The good news is that the homeschooling family is very well positioned to give a child the kind of real-world experiences that will impart the needed perspective, so the child can understand why the virtues we instill in them are important. After all, our kids aren't locked up with their peers for seven hours a day, and their homework for four more, every day; we can use this time to give our kids experience in the real world. It's a whole lot easier to do as Moses said:

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates...

Deuteronomy 11:18-20

...when you actually have your children with you more than an hour or two a day.

But then, there's the challenge: while I believe in general that it's good for children to be with their parents, we parents must take this responsibility seriously. We must expose them to the real world, and show them how it works. We must get our kids involved in the community if we are to give them the experiences and perspective they need. We Christians can sometimes develop a bunker mentality about the world around us--they're all out to get us!--and there is sometimes a very real temptation to shut the rest of the world out. We can't afford to do this, if we want our children to go forth and conquer, and not get smashed up the first time they leave home.

And yes, I'm preaching to myself here. ;-)


The McMullen Family said...

This is a very thoughtful assessment of this issue. I do remember as a teen clearly believing that if my friends suddenly turned on me I wouldn't even be able to show my face at school! And I wasn't even particularly enamored of the social scene, just inexorably tied to it whether I liked it or not. I'd like something more than that for my kids, and I'll think of your words when naysayers tell me how socially stunted my (now toddler) son will turn out. Thanks.

Timothy Power said...

Actually, after dropping by your site, I think your toddler is likely to grow up to be the envy of his peers--growing up as much on a sailboat, as on land. I'm in my mid-thirties, and I'm envious.

Yeah, I think we need to train our kids to be comfortable interacting with adults, more than they need to be comfortable around other kids. After all, they're going to spend most of their lives in adult society, and the more comfortable they are there, the smoother the inevitable transition to adulthood will be.

Thanks for dropping by my humble site!

Chris said...

Kudos on a very well-reasoned, well-stated assessment. I'm particularly drawn to your concluding thoughts. It is absolutely incumbant on us as parent-teachers to get our kids out into the world as much as possible. For us, living in the middle of nowhere, it would be easy to get up on top of our mountain and never come down. Yet, we can't. Thus, we're found driving into downtown Atlanta weekly so that DD1 (almost 8) can participate in a renowned children's choir, exposing her to musical culture and a much broader diversity of ethnic cultures than is available here in our gated community. As all three get older, opportunities to volunteer with the many "seasoned citizens" in our community will abound and add depth and variety to their world view. But boy is it a lot of work!

The Homeschool and Etc. Blog said...

Hello. I came by for a visit after the carnival of homeschooling posted a link. I think this post speaks well to that, "What about socialization?" argument that is constantly asked about.

Usually the response I hear from homeschoolers is more about the NEGATIVE effects of socialization... for example, "I don't want my child socialized into a gang."

Mrs. C

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