We’re dealing with some behaviour issues at the moment. Not mine this time. The eldest Sunday School Class isn’t running as smoothly as we’d like it to. And one of the chief protagonists belongs to me! Poor kid; being the Vicar’s son can be an absolute shocker sometimes. And it’s only going to get worse. He just doesn’t fancy being the role model. And who can blame him. He feels like he’s under the spotlight all the time and he has to set the standard for everyone to follow.
It’s nothing too serious. It’s your typical low-level boyish tomfoolery. I built a career at secondary school out of that stuff. It’s not malicious. But it is disruptive. And therefore the Sunday School Leaders find it incredibly frustrating. No doubt if they were more authoritarian in their approach they’d suppress the issue. But though the problem might go away it wouldn’t really have been dealt with, would it? I’m glad that we’ve had to face this issue. We’re finding it a useful conversation to have.
In the course of our discussions it’s emerged that the principal reason for the misbehaviour is peer pressure. He didn’t put it like that. But that’s what he described. What he said was something like ‘I’m afraid that my friends won’t like me if I don’t join in’. I thought that was pretty honest. And as disappointed and as annoyed as I am that he’s a contributory factor to the disruption of Sunday School, I’m really pleased with his frankness. And I think he’s put his finger on an ise that we can get our teeth into.
I’m guessing that most parents have to wait until their children approach the teenage years before they really have to deal with the unhelpful dynamic of peer influence. We’re way off that. In the early years most parents can remove their children from any unhelpful influence. That’s not an option as soon as they start making their own decisions. If you try to tell a teenager just who they can hang out with they’ll just kick back! And so I’m grateful that we’re here already because it’s such a massive issue and if we can get it sorted now that’s one less issue for the teenage years! Get in.
In thinking therefore about the issue of peer pressure these are some of the salient issues that we’ve talked over
1. this is a common issue
Let’s be honest, it’s not just eight year old boys who have to deal with the unhelpful influence of their mates. Most of us struggle with what others think of us. We all struggle with people in our lives whose opinion matters more than it should. In effect they exert more influence over us than is healthy. They wield more power in our lives than God intended. The Bible calls it the fear of man. In Proverbs 29:28 the writer says, ‘fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe’. And so I’ve tried to reassure Rufus that this issue is my issue. And it really is. But I’m not sure that he believes me. But the fear of man is something that we all need to be liberated from, whether we’re a nine-year old boy or his Dad!
2. This is a lordship issue
When we submit to peer pressure our peer group has in effect become our Lord. If what we say, think and do is determined by the approval or otherwise of an individual or group, they’re exerting a divine like control over our existence. But why do we let that happen? It’s because we idolise our peer group. But why do we allow ourselves to give them such a place of significance in our lives? The key driver in peer pressure is the fear of man, so what are we afraid of?
We’re afraid of being found out. We don’t want people to discover what we’re really like. And so we try to become the person we think they want us to be.
We’re afraid of rejection. We don’t want people to disown us. And so we do what’s necessary to fit in.
We’re afraid of being hurt. We don’t want people to damage us. And so we do what we have to do to avoid being mistreated.
3. this is a faith issue
If we stop for a moment and think about what’s going on we’ll realise that we’re putting our trust in the wrong place. That’s what Proverbs 29 says. We have two options; the fear of man or trust in the Lord. And so if we continue to find our identity, our meaning and our purpose in anything other than God and his gospel, the wheels are going to come off the wagon. Our identity is who we are and how we think of ourselves. Our meaning is what we’re about and how we understand our existence. Our purpose is what our lives are for and how we use them. If we try to gain those things from the people around us then they will ultimately control us. But we don’t need to fear exposure, rejection or being hurt because in the gospel God has dealt with those fears. He declares that our sins have been covered over and we’re forgiven. He reassures us of his acceptance no matter what type of person we are. And he comforts us and protects us from anything that will harm us. And so we need to turn from our peer group as our saviour and Lord to God himself. The fear of man needs to be replaced with trust in the Lord. When he is our ultimate treasure, when his opinion matters most to us, when serving him means more to us than anything we will be liberated from our enslavement. When instead we’re reassured of his acceptance we’ll stop craving it from those around us.
The question is how do we do that?
The battle takes place in the heart, for as Proverbs 4:23 says, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life’. In our heart of hearts we need to be convinced that our peers make miserable lords. But we usually don’t think like that. If we’re a parent we probably subscribe to the ‘conditions’ approach rather than the ‘character’ approach. In other words, we try to control the conditions around our child so that they are protected from unhelpful influences. That might work when the kids are young. But it hasn’t got a chance when they’re teenagers and enjoy some degree of independence. And we can think like that as grown ups. Sure, there’s wisdom in taking someone out of an unhelfpful environment so that they can then think straight. But there are deeper isues at play that we need to address. And so it’s an approach that runs the risk of completely ignoring the more important part played by character. We ignore the state of the heart at their peril.
Of course, changing a human heart is something that only God can do. And so we must pray. We need to pray that our kids (and ourselves) will admit their predicament, and their powerlessness. And then we need them to cry out to God in faith. God will give grace to the humble (James 4:6) and so we need him to bring us low.
But we don’t stand idly by. We can be involved. God can use us as instruments of change. And so there are things that we can do in order to try to effect transformation. And principally our kids need something bigger than their peer group to put things into perspective; namely God. Psalm 34:9 puts it this way, ‘Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing’. As God looms larger in our thinking, our passions and our decisions we will experience redemption from the captivity of peer pressure. And so the daily practice of reading the Bible, praying together at meal times and living as a family where Christ is Lord ought to be helping them.