Study Finds That Children As Young As Four Conform To Peer Pressure

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During the summer, our local splashpad is a pretty popular social site for neighborhood kids. The entire park is packed from June through September. Our daughter normally loves to visit the sprinklers and run off a little excess energy after daycare. But one day, I had forgotten to pack her bathing suit into her bag. Normally, I kept one on hand for just this occasion, but for that day, my little girl was suitless. Not thinking it was too big of a deal, I told me daughter that she could run through the sprinklers in her clothes and I’d change her into a spare outfit for the walk home. My beautiful three-year-old looked horrified. “Mom,” she said, “I can’t wear my clothes. All the kids will laugh at me.”

I was stunned. Honestly, I was completely shocked that a pre-schooler would even consider what those around her thought about her clothes. Embarrassment? I had never seen my little girl embarassed by anything, whether it was singing at the top of her lungs in the grocery store or stripping nude in the middle of a family reunion. Where did this self-awareness come from?

According to researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, my daughter is just falling in line with typical toddler behavior. Their new study published in the journal Child Development looked at peer pressure and its effects on children as young as four years old. These little ones already disregarded answers they knew to be correct in favor of conforming to their peers’ opinions.

So what does this mean for us as parents? The best way to combat peer pressure is through self-confidence, respect for individual choice and embracing differences. From a young age, we need to teach our children that it’s okay to be different and that their opinions are valued. Often, parents want to wait until the teen years, when peer pressure can get much more prevalent and dangerous before we discuss it. But this study shows that we need to begin the conversation much earlier.

Our kids need to be believe that their unique talents are special before they ever hit kindergarten. They need to know that tolerance is a important and necessary. After all, if they can learn to conform to peer pressure at age four, than they’re also capable of learning why individuality should be celebrated. If we can teach them social mores before elementary school, we can also make sure that they know how important it is to believe and trust in themselves.

If my daughter doesn’t want to wear her day clothes to splash pad, I’m not going to force her to. But I don’t ever want to hear that she’s afraid to do something because other kids will laugh at her. She’s too intelligent and amazing to be afraid of the opinions of those around her.