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How much of our parenting is influenced by our friends?

May 31, 2013

I read a study this week that discussed how parents’ social networks (online and in real life) affect their decisions about vaccinating their kids. The paper concluded that a parent’s people connections were the most influential factors affecting their vaccination decisions- above educational level, relationship with their healthcare provider, online and print reading sources and economic status. I found it to be really interesting, but as I thought more about it, I found myself saying this: “Well… duh.”

No offense to the esteemed researchers who spent painstaking time and effort to discover this gem, but it just sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? We are affected by the people around us, and probably much more than we realize. We worry about our teenagers hanging out with the “wrong crowd” because we know that they are likely to be influenced by the behavior of their peers. But, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not only teenagers who are dramatically influenced by their friends.

Our choices are influenced by those around us

Sociologists have found that many of our behaviors- habits related to eating or smoking, for example- are passed along from one person to another in social groups. Obesity tends to occur in geographic clusters and social groupings, and you’re more likely to stop smoking if your friends no longer smoke. Along those same lines, we likely aren’t parenting in a bubble all on our own.

How do parents decide whether to spank their child or not? What age is appropriate to potty train? How do we decide whether or when to start pre-kindergarten? Public or private education? Formula or breastfeeding? Talking to your teen about sex?

For most of us, we likely look around at our family, friends and peers and make our decision according to what seems “normal” within that group. Even though we have likely chosen our group of friends because we have similar likes and dislikes, we are often subject to their influence, even when it might be different from our own preferences.

Taking a closer look

I’ll give you an example of something that happened to me recently that made me realize that this was happening in my own life.

My daughter and I attend a playgroup semi-regularly, and after the activity a few weeks ago, we went out for lunch with a group of the moms and their kids. We were at a burger joint, and each of the moms ordered some version of a burger, fries and soda. As we sat down amid the chaos and began to eat, I realized that my child was the only one who was eating a burger like the adults. Every other mother had packed a homemade lunch packed with organic peanut butter sandwiches and fruit.

As these mothers have been together over the last two years, I’ve seen their habits evolve over time to become more and more alike. There seems to be a value within the group placed on heavy control over what their child can and cannot eat. Even more, the mothers seem to find their own value, like a metaphorical trophy for parenting excellence, in their success at this particular feeding philosophy.

In that moment, it was so difficult for me to remember that I have my own opinions on this, and I absolutely do not believe that controlling every aspect of my child’s food intake will be healthy for her in the long run. We eat healthy, well-balanced meals at home most of the time. But, when we are out at a restaurant and I am indulging in a treat, I allow her to exercise her ability to decide whether she would like to as well. My goal is teaching her to choose moderation as she grows into adulthood, not restrict her so heavily that she will likely rebel when she has the opportunity.

But, to be honest, at that moment, I really wished I had packed a lunch for her. Why? Because I could tell from the actions of the other mothers what they valued, and I didn’t want to be judged by the group. Like a teenager in high school, I just wanted to fit in. I wanted these other mothers to affirm my choices, too, just as their mimicking the habits of each other affirms each of them.

So what does all of it mean? Is it a bad thing that we are influenced by our friends? Maybe. Maybe not.

Friends who are parenting alongside us are often our best and most valuable resource. They understand what we are going through, they’re with us in the everyday challenges we face in raising our kids, and they can help us get through it with a little more grace than we may otherwise have been able to do. But, I would guess we might all benefit by taking a deeper look at our parenting influences.

I have decided to look carefully at why I make some of the decisions that I make for my child. Rather than accepting the “norm” that I see in my social groups, I’m challenging myself to ask instead what it is that my husband and I value. Instead of looking for my own affirmation among my friends, I really want to take a harder look to determine what is best for my family. And, I’m trying very, very hard to fight the feelings of failure when my choices are different than those around me.

I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.