My daughter and I sat beneath a pavilion in the park, bottles of acrylic paint spaced across the table to weigh down our paper. We’d been talking about painting in the park for a couple of months, so I had that good-mom feeling.

Twenty feet from us, some high-school guys were throwing a football. Toddlers were playing a few yards up the creek from us; grade-school girls shouted out dares.

But before things looked too idyllic, the high schoolers began punctuating nearly every other sentence (I kid you not) with the F-bomb.

I looked at my 12-year-old.

“It’s real life, Mom,” she shrugged.

My kids are quick to inform me, amidst my media censorship at home, that anything they watch won’t be close to the words popping out in their public-school hallways like toast. After homeschooling for years, these are hallways we chose strategically as Christians.

But crass is the new cool. And the F-bomb is the new H-E-double-hockey-sticks.

What can we do when peer pressure comes too soon?

Sometimes the peer pressure is more subtle, like a pink, harmless-looking haze falling around our children. One friend told me about a first grader in her daughter’s class sporting a Michael Kors bag and certainly higher-end clothes than my friend herself wears.

First grade feels young for “No Prada this year, sweetheart.”

How can we deal?

1. Make conversation more important than censorship.

Like shielding our kids from disease, hiding our kids from any exposure can be misleading. We can think they’re robustly healthy—until the weakness of their immune systems reveals itself from the very lack of exposure.

Obviously scripture still rings true: “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33 NIV). But what if our children don’t learn how to love people different from them, or only through distant labels? If our kids don’t learn to “resist the devil” and watch him flee? If their list of “what not to do” grows, but without compassionate dialogue about the “other side”?

Then we’re not helping them gain the muscle needed from lifting the weight of these issues.Not alone, but together.

As their experiences expand, our conversation and supporting moral trellis build alongside—and maybe a few steps ahead.

2. Arm your kids for peer pressure by actively developing their moral conscience.

One of the best ways to protect our kids from peer pressure is to help them shoulder ownership of their own convictions, rather than piggy-backing on ours.

If our kids can’t answer the questions their peers ask—”Why don’t your parents let you date?” “Why can’t you see that movie?”—it becomes a lot harder to stand against the tide.

So we can hand kids more than a rule. We can help them nurture their own convictions.

3. Understand the battle from their vantage point.

What questions are their hearts asking in the tornado of peer pressure?

Do they feel:

  • Ostracized or isolated?
  • Angry that they can’t participate?
  • Annoyed with everyone’s stupidity? (It’s possible.) Arrogant, even?
  • Afraid of what everyone will think?
  • Apathetic?

Ask them to tell you what this is like around them. Help them to respond to their actual environment—not just your vision of it.

  • Are kids holding hands? Do most of their group of friends have a boyfriend or girlfriend?
  • Ask if your kids can think of ideas from the Bible that might tell us how to think about these situations. Then help them out with other verses.

It’s how we apply Deuteronomy 6—talking about how the the Word applies as we’re going to bed, walking along the way (i.e. driving), getting up in the morning.

Pray for your kids… for just 5 minutes a day with the Parenting Prayer Challenge.

4. Help them internalize the appeal of not doing what everyone else is doing.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote that our desires aren’t too strong. They’re too weak.

We mess around with our world’s “mud pies,” because we can’t even imagine what it’s like to go to the beach—the lifestyle God knows is the best and most robust for us.

What’s the higher goal your child wants, revealing the wrong decision for the mud pie it is? (In this case, maybe it’s finding worth in something other than a kid who will break your heart in three days.)

We want to compel our kids with something more beautiful than the world’s gaudy rhinestones. How can we gently guide them toward gratitude for God’s protection from what hurts us?

Consider what truth you could encourage your child with that doesn’t make doing the right thing feel like losing out. What’s the inherent beauty in what God asks of us?

If they’re particularly struggling with peer pressure, spend some time having fun together, building into your child’s sense of worth. Hopefully, it will help them gain perspective and identity outside of peers.

What positive friendships could you encourage, creating comfortable hang-out time and counteractive peer pressure? These friends might not not even attend your child’s school. But don’t underestimate the power of your child feeling accepted and “normal” in at least one social setting. (Maybe your child won’t feel so embarrassed they’re the only 10-year-old not watching PG-13.)

5. Talk about peer pressure with your kids.

Say your 8-year-old’s class is pairing up into boyfriend-girlfriend duos. How can you help them navigate?

First, thank them for telling you what’s going on. Help them feel good about telling you, rather than afraid you’ll freak out. Create a safe place for kids to speak openly and get their questions out—rather than solving problems with their kid-sized toolbox.

  • Ask questions about what they think about the situation.
  • “Why do you think people want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend?” (It feels nice to have someone like you. It feels grown up.)
  • “Do you think you need a boyfriend or girlfriend to feel those things? What’s God say about what makes us valuable?” (God says you’re valuable whether you have a girlfriend/boyfriend or not. He’s the one who fills the holes inside us [see Jeremiah 2:13]).
  • “Could there be any problems with having a boyfriend or girlfriend too early?” (We could start to only feel good about ourselves if we have a partner. Likely we’ll miss out on friendships. We might experiment with other things, like kissing, that we should wait on. These couples probably won’t get married, so kids will get their hearts broken.)

6. Focus on the values more than the issue.

“We don’t use those words, watch those movies, wear lipstick, or hang out with those who do,” doesn’t arm our kids with the whys informing our ethics. Our kids’ decisions aren’t like their preschool shape-sorters: This one right, this one wrong. 

One friend of mine, estranged from the church, passionately related to me that the church of her childhood placed everything in rote, right-and-wrong columns.

Rather than seeking to uncover what the complexity of wisdom looked like in each situation—and what it would look like to love each “sinner”—the focus fell on the appearance of the issue at face value: Whether someone was pregnant. How many times someone attended church each week. The length of someone’s shorts.

The way she described it, she got really good at shoving things into the right categories and really bad at compassionately seeing people.

Jesus condemned the lawyers of the Pharisees—the experts in the law!—saying, “you have taken away the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52). Rather than encouraging people to know God, to consult the mind and heart of God, the Pharisees had a rule for everything.

He explains that they eke out the smallest matters of right and wrong, but they missed the big picture.

“For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23, emphasis added).

Messy morality

As kids grow, we’re helping them begin to understand complexity of morality and loving individuals in a messy world. (There’s a reason Jesus was born in a barn.) Rather than that shape sorter, we’re teaching that discernment is more like looking at an old black-and-white newspaper photo. We can delineate pixels of gray, black, and white.

It’s why Jesus could see past a prostitute’s label to her pain.

For the kids at the park that day, did I see them as people who cussed and ruined my peaceful, coveted moments with my daughter? (Honestly? I did.)

I think now of the wisdom of a friend of mine in public school administration. In his first years as a teacher, his question over a kid’s misbehavior would be, “What’s wrong with you?”

With a little more age and wisdom, his question has now turned into, “What happened to you?” (Read more about teaching kids the difference between discernment and being judgmental . )

We don’t call Prada for 6-year-olds good. But any perspective we have about the fickle treasures of this temporary third rock? We see it’s only from a gracious God who decided to open our blind eyes.

We could shape lovely children as morally trimmed as a paper doll, but miss the substance of hearts that love Jesus and love people, understanding why they’re tempted and the pressing questions of their hearts.

Will we raise kids who not only resist temptation but do so from a position of humility?


Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.

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