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'Everybody else is doing it, why can’t I?'

Open communication can help kids better understand peer pressure, says child psychologist Harold Koplewicz.
/ Source: TODAY

Every child asks it. “If everybody else is doing it, why can’t I?” While the first reaction may be to say no, parents — and children — are better off if there is a conversation and careful consideration of the child’s wishes. Director of the NYU Child Study Center Harold Koplewicz was invited on “Today” to share advice on how parents should respond when their kids say that everybody else is doing it.

How should you respond to your kids when they tell you everybody is doing it?  
The important message you need to convey is that this is a dialogue. You want to build independent adults. Parents need to listen carefully to the request and ask questions. “Who else will be there? What supervision will there be? What is going on?” And at the end parents need to make a decision and explain why they made that decision. Explanations help the child to understand the parents’ decision. Great parents make tough decisions, and studies show that children whose parents are involved are more independent, understand the grays of life and can make decisions better themselves.

Can parents really just say, "You can't do this because I said so," and expect children not to sneak around behind their backs?
It's not a good model to say, "Because I said so." Parents need to understand and listen. However, authoritative parents can also talk to their kids, listen to what they have to say, and then make a decision also based on their conversation. Parents who do have give and take conversations with their kids are the best role models, because this is what we want kids to do.

The NYU Child Study Center recently conducted a National Parents Survey and found that parents felt the biggest problem facing children ages 5 to 18 years old is peer pressure. How can you help your kids avoid the peer pressure of wanting to do something because everyone else is doing it?
Parents are right, it is a big challenge, and it only becomes more difficult the older kids get. Kids age 13 to 18 are more influenced by peer pressure. But the most influential person in a child’s life are his parents. Parents need to share their views on a regular basis.  If you don't believe in pre-marital sex, talk about it. The same rules apply for any other issues. Don't preach, but talk about what the dangers are and why you may be opposed to certain behavior.Even though children may act out against their parents, pierce their bodies or dye their hair, at end of the day the most successful people are close to their parents. You need to talk about difficult issues on a regular basis. Nobody is saying it's easy. It's not comfortable to talk about sex, but what you are really talking about is self-esteem. If your son likes a girl, ask him if he would want his sister to be treated this way. On-going discussions are what make a difference when difficult situations arise.

While you don't want your kid to bend to peer-pressure, you also don’t want them following everyone else. How do you find a happy medium?
There are always decisions to be made, and sometimes certain things we may forbid are just silly. For example with fashion - if all the kids are wearing a certain style that your kid wants to wear, and in your community there is a certain standard about the way kids dress.  Think about the battle carefully because you don't want to lose the war. Let them wear the clothes if they are socially accepted, but put your foot down if they are sexually provocative. It's not a joke when people say parenting is the hardest job ever.

One thing parents need to realize is that they are allowed to mistakes. You can always change your mind. You can go back to a child and say, “I made more phone calls and realized there is not going to be as much supervision as I thought so you can't go.” Most parents feel pressure to make decisions on the spot. You don't have to do that. You can say to your child, "I can't make this decision now, I need to talk to your father first, or I need to call some of your friend's parents." And if your kid keeps pressing you just say, "If I have to answer now, the answer is going to be no."

Should you find out what the consensus is in your community as to what age different activities begin, or is that a bad idea because then as a parent you may be conforming to peer pressure if all the other parents are doing it? Open lines of communication with kids are very important. Especially when deciding on something like a curfew. If your kid says, "I'm the only one not staying out until 1:00 a.m.," and they really are the only one who is coming home at 11:00 p.m. then they are at a social disadvantage. It's important for parents to talk to each other, and ask them to tell you if you change their children’s curfew. Talking with the parents of your children's friends is important because you need to ask them to tell you if they see your kids doing something harmful or worrisome.

Parents do succumb to peer pressure and sometimes it should happen because some parents have really crazy ideas as to what their kids shouldn't be allowed to do. If every one of your daughter's friends has a phone in their room, perhaps you should let your child have a phone in her room. Parents need to base their decisions on what they can afford, what their resources are, and the characters of their individual children. All kids have deficits and assets. If your child is a risk taker you may want to be more conservative about their curfew. If your child is shy and reserved you might have greater leniency with their curfew. Make decisions based on your child.

When your kids go over to a friend’s house how do you make sure they are still following your rules and not the rules of that household?  Is it a good idea to call the other parents before your children spend time at their house to see what their rules are, or does that make it embarrassing for your child, and make you look like an over protective parent?If you are concerned about your kid you should definitely pick up the phone, call the other parents and tell them what your expectations are. Ask questions, when they will go to sleep, what type of supervision there will be and what movie rating they let them watch. Explain your concerns. You can't expect parents to know your guidelines unless you tell them. After listening to them you then you have to decide if you want to let your child go there.

Before you let a kid sleep over someone's house you have to pick of the phone, if for no other reason then to make sure that they know your child is sleeping over. For kids 8 to 12 years of age, picking up the phone is a must. It does get embarrassing for kids at 15 and 16, but those are also the times for the higher risk. Don't you want to know what atmosphere your kids will be in? You can always put it in your child’s hands and ask them to have the mother call you. It sounds like a cliché, "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your child is?" But it's not; you need to know the answer.

If your kid does go to a party at someone's house and does engage in some activity, like watching a rated R movie, which you wouldn't allow, what is the appropriate action after the fact?
Calling the parents of your children’s friends after the fact is always hard, especially if you are accusing them of something. But you still should make the call. We all make mistakes. I took 26 kids to see Jerry McGuire. I didn't realize it was rated R and the movie was fine except for the one sex scene in the beginning and I leaned over to my wife and said we are in so much trouble. And she said maybe the kids aren't watching and we turned and looked and they were all glued to the screen. As we were leaving the theater, people told us that this movie is not appropriate for kids. I was thinking, I'm a famous child psychologist, I'm so screwed. After the fact, two parents did call and we apologized. It was a mistake, and I was surprised that only two parents called. We did tell the parents we were taking them to see Jerry McGuire and no one said anything because they didn't realize it was R rated, either.