Can a new school help teens break old habits?

Kids may not leave be­hind bad in­flu­ences, even in a good en­vi­ron­ment

The Kids Post - - Parent To Parent - JOANNE KATES Par­ent­ing colum­nist Joanne Kates is an ex­pert ed­u­ca­tor in the area of con­flict me­di­a­tion, self-es­teem and anti-bul­ly­ing, and she is the di­rec­tor of Camp Arowhon in Al­go­nquin Park. by Joanne Kates

I sent my daugh­ter to a prom­i­nent lo­cal pri­vate school so she would hang out with smart kids and not do drugs, drink or have sex. I tried the same thing with my son so he would be influenced to­wards bet­ter work habits and the pur­suit of ex­cel­lence.

My daugh­ter man­aged the tri­fecta (and then some) and my son came straight home from school ev­ery day and hung out with his old friends from the neigh­bour­hood. For my (then) 20some­thing thou­sand dol­lars a year, he wrote some pa­pers for his neigh­bour­hood friends be­cause, as he said, he was get­ting a much bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion than they were.

I des­per­ately wanted to edit both my kids’ friends lists, and send­ing them to snazzy pri­vate schools was a big part of the plan for that. The idea was that they would bond with the peo­ple they spent their days with, which seemed a re­al­is­tic enough ex­pec­ta­tion.

How wrong I was to ex­pect that, and now I see why.

The pri­mary rea­son has to do with power and con­trol. These are the two things that ev­ery ado­les­cent wants most. When they whine: “I’m not a baby any­more, but you keep treat­ing me like one,” we need to de­code that com­plaint rather than re­act, to look un­der the whine and find the meat of the mat­ter — which is that ado­les­cents’ prime di­rec­tive, their great bi­o­log­i­cally pro­grammed drive, is to in­di­vid­u­ate and sep­a­rate from their par­ents, to seize their in­de­pen­dence and be­come au­ton­o­mous from us.

We know that they do this clum­sily, in fits and starts. It’s hard to par­ent some­one who os­cil­lates wildly be­tween baby­ish and ma­ture. They’re un­pre­dictable about ev­ery­thing — ex­cept their friend­ships. This they do with one goal in mind: power and con­trol. Friends are ev­ery­thing to ado­les­cents, be­cause they are in the process of be­com­ing them­selves, of fig­ur­ing out who they are, and a friend is for re­flect­ing back at you who you are.

These pri­vate school kids choose to main­tain their old neigh­bour­hood friend­ships firstly for acutely prac­ti­cal rea­sons: they have no wheels. If they hang out with their school friends, who do not nec­es­sar­ily live nearby, they need help from Mom and Dad (in the form of rides to and fro). Neigh­bour­hood friends can be ac­cessed in­de­pen­dently on foot or bike, which takes par­ents out of the equa­tion. This gives them more power and con­trol, and we know they want that.

It also al­lows them to set the so­cial agenda and do some ageap­pro­pri­ate re­belling. Our kids aren’t stupid. They know we want them to con­nect with these “good” kids at the good school. What a neat trick, what an ef­fec­tive way to seize con­trol, by stay­ing loyal to the neigh­bour­hood friends. Which also al­lows them to en­gage in be­hav­iours that we pro­hibit. Fly­ing un­der the parental radar is sig­nif­i­cantly eas­ier when you get around on your own.

The other rea­son why our pri­vate school ado­les­cents stay with their neigh­bour­hood friends has to do with that de­vel­op­men­tal im­per­a­tive of fig­ur­ing out who they are. That process, their anx­i­ety about be­com­ing some­body and the in­evitable fears about be­ing in­vis­i­ble or un­cool or ugly — all com­bine to make ado­les­cents pretty fear­ful crea­tures. Look at sheep in a field hur­ry­ing to herd, and you see ado­les­cent be­hav­iour. If that were you (and it was) would you make a whole bunch of new friends or stick with the ones you knew? And given that friends are a mir­ror in whose re­flec­tion kids see and de­fine them­selves, do they want an un­fa­mil­iar mir­ror?

At a time of life when ev­ery­thing else is chang­ing and their hor­mones are rag­ing, is it any won­der that a neigh­bour­hood gang is a bea­con of safety and se­cu­rity?

Neigh­bour­hood friends can pro­vide safety and se­cu­rity in chal­leng­ing times

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