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What do you say to the child who is an underachiever because he doesn’t want to “stand out”?
Peer influence is very dramatic at every age (including among adults), and kids can feel very lonely when they don’t fit in with friends they consider important. Consider this a crucial training opportunity for your son. Do chat with him about these values that can guide him for the rest of his life. Explain that being true to his abilities will prepare him for a career that will be satisfying and fulfilling. Underachieving — not working to his abilities — will close doors on interesting opportunities for him. While he can be friendly with many kids, it’s important to choose best friends who value school achievement. In that way, he can achieve and won’t have to stand out so much. If he does stand out, his friends will likely be supportive; and he can feel good about his accomplishments.
You should be aware, however, that sometimes children use peer pressure to be “cool” because they’re actually losing confidence in their abilities. Thus, he may truly fear that he is no longer such an outstanding scholar as he was in lower grades. He could be using “not standing out” to excuse his fear that even if he worked hard, he wouldn’t achieve the outstanding grades he achieved in earlier years.
Because your son may not wish to admit his lack of confidence, you should reassure him that you expect him to work at his best, but that he need not be disappointed in himself should he find the new work harder than ever before. More difficult work is to be expected as children move to higher grades. If you clarify that for him, it won’t put undo pressure on him. It will also be a message that assures him that you’ll not accept excuses for his failure to take his responsibilities seriously.
This discussion can lead to many other talks about conformity and non-conformity in the future. You can explain that sometimes it’s just fine to go along with the crowd, while at other times he’ll need to make difficult decisions that will set him apart from his peer group. For example, it’s a good thing to conform to taking responsibility for homework, so he should do that in a conforming way. He can make choices about how much he wants to conform to dressing in the “cool” styles of other kids because clothing choices are unlikely to lead him to problems unless they are extreme. When it relates to alcohol and other drugs, however, he’ll need to be strong enough to avoid the temptation to conform if peers are experimenting. Furthermore, you’ll expect him to take a different path and find friends who are not engaging in those activities. That last message is one you’ll want to state very clearly. Helping your son to understand the complexities of choosing to conform or not conform under various circumstances will surely encourage him to think deeply about problems instead of impulsively following the crowd.
Dr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters about peer influence, growing up too fast in middle or high school, or how popularity ends at grade 12, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s Articles for Parents and Teachers and submit family questions online at www.sylviarimm.com. All questions are answered.