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‘Who influences children more: their parents or their peers?’

16/06/2009

Some years ago, The Guardian published a debate article which contrasted the views of a mother and her daughter on the conflict which emerges at puberty as adolescents establish themselves as a separate individuals distinct from their parents.
The question of who has the most influence upon adolescent attitude and behaviour is the stuff of myth, theatre and soap opera. Yet, our understanding of the social psychology behind this is far more subtle and sophisticated than such portrayals might suggest.
Most parents claim credit for their children’s achievements whilst bemoaning the negative influence of peers (“Oh, it’s not her fault really: she’s easily led”). Equally, adolescents typically deny any positive parental influence (“You just don’t understand!”) and exaggerate the benefit and enjoyment gained from the company of their friends.
Such attributions of influence miss the point, somewhat, as they fail to identify the role of the young person as an active decision-maker. Teenagers make well-informed choices about their associates: highly conscious of the image and activity of each peer grouping, they tend to choose those who will sanction the behaviour in which they want to engage.
However, parents should not despair: their influence is very clearly the decisive factor. No matter how much teenagers might wish it otherwise, when the chips are down, they do what their parents have taught them.
Recent work, in this country and abroad, indicates that, where adolescents perceive an activity to be low risk, they tend to follow their peers. But, where the risk is clearly high, they mirror their parents’ attitudes and behaviour far more closely, even though, consciously, they may deny this.
The implications of this may be of some consolation to parents for, as long as they are consistent, friendly and fair, children will tend to assume the values of the ‘family firm’. In the long run, maybe Mother does know best, although we can be sure that, as long as there are families to raise them, most teenagers will contest this with every sinew in their bodies.

Neil de Reybekill is Chief Executive of the social research consultancy Life Research Ltd

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