In recent years there have been significant increases in youth antisocial behavior (Kaufman et al., 1999) and problematic interpersonal relationships (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000). Since individuals learn how to interact with others through the extended interpersonal training that comes with peer and familial interaction, this would seem to indicate a need to better and more fully understand the influences associated with both parent-dominant and peer dominant environments
This article examines the factors that may contribute to the social development of children especially in regards to peer influence and parental involvement and monitoring. These effects are examined by looking at their influence across traditionally schooled and home schooled populations. Additionally, contributing factors are examined across their varied dimensions including: (a) schema development, as influenced by the availability heuristic and the false consensus effect; (b) negative peer influences from three domains: outward, inward, and through deviance training; and (c) parental monitoring. Studies suggest that as parental monitoring increases and is integrated within the peer culture, socialization and personality development are enhanced.
Availability Heuristic and the False Consensus Effect
When children are immersed in a peer-dominant culture without an appropriate outlet for accountability, they can very quickly assume the attitudes and behaviors of the other members of their group. As individuals increase their exposure to activities or behaviors that people are engaged in, their perception of prevalence rates for that behavior will likely increase. This is because the most available information regarding prevalence ratings is drawn from the most immediate experiences. This mechanism is referred to as the availability heuristic. This is one tool we use to construct our perceptions of reality and truth regarding the world around us and how it works. We shape our schemas of the world through heuristics. By operating under the mechanisms of the availability heuristic children begin to view behaviors that their peer group members engage in as being more prevalent than they really are. As they reflect on the prevalence of a particular behavior, they use the actions of their immediate groups as a reference tool. This would apply to a variety of behaviors that lead to significant social problems such as bullying behavior, substance abuse, and promiscuousness.
As individuals’ perceptions of prevalence for a specific behavior increases, they may also begin to believe that other people share the same beliefs (Ross et al., 1977). They develop a false consensus effect. The false consensus effect leads an individual to believe that more people think and act like as he/she does than actually do. For example, if a child begins to believe that more young people are using alcohol, they also assume that more people believe that children are using alcohol than actually do. To demonstrate the false consensus effect, Brown and Shuman (1994) examined the effects of individuals’ perceptions of others’ membership across two political dimensions: political affiliation and abortion. They demonstrated that an individual’s own beliefs had in impact on their perception regarding the number of people who support a specific political candidate and their perception of support for pro-life and pro-choice positions. For example, the individuals that supported George Bush in the 1994 elections believed that more people supported George Bush that actually did. Likewise, the individuals that supported Bill Clinton believed that more people supported Bill Clinton that actually did. They found similar results when examining the issue of abortion. Individuals that were pro-choice believed that more people were pro-choice than actually were.
Because the institutionalized education system locks children into their prospective peer group for an extensive length of time each day, the power of the availability heuristic and the false consensus effect becomes great. They quickly assimilate new belief systems regarding the prevalence of the behaviors of the group to which they belong. This can work positively or negatively. If the child is a member of a specific peer group that demonstrates very high standards of ethical behavior, the child will then begin to see the same increase in his or her perceptions of prevalence. In this case, however, the child increasingly believes that socially acceptable behaviors are more prevalent than they actually are. If they are engaged with individuals that are aggressive, or who exhibit bullying behavior, they gradually begin to believe that bullying is a prevalent behavior among children everywhere. The perceived level of deviance that is attached to the behavior being observed does not seem to have an influence on the power of the false consensus developed. The behavior may not be deviant from the norm or it may be very deviant, but it will still carry the potential to encourage a false consensus regarding prevalence.
The populations that are susceptible to the false consensus effect exclude no one. Some children may recognize the deviance of their peer group and thus feel that they can discern between the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. For example, a child that was raised in a conservative home may have been taught that certain types of behavior – such as smoking, drinking, or stealing– are unacceptable. These children may feel that they can belong to a peer group that engages in unacceptable behaviors and be exempt from the influence because they “know” the behaviors are wrong.
In contrast, Brabender and Deutsch (1993) demonstrated that recognizing the deviance of the group in which you are drawing your judgments does not seem to hinder the false consensus obtained from them. The researchers originally hypothesized that out of two populations – college students and psychiatric patients – the psychiatric patients would identify the deviance of their group and thus be less likely to develop a false consensus effect regarding their behaviors and activities. They would do this because of the understanding of the under-representativeness of their population to the general population. However, contrary to their prediction, the researchers found that the psychiatric patients were no less likely to develop a false consensus effect.
They used samples of college students and psychiatric inpatients living in a residential arrangement in which approximately 30 people communed together in one place. The psychiatric patents lived in a ward with approximately 30 other people, and the college students lived in dorms with approximately 30 other people. This was done to balance the amount of in-group influence they would experience. Both groups completed a three-page questionnaire regarding their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. The questions asked about different aspects of their lives such as color preferences, perspectives on abortion, and the activities in which they liked to engage. They were then asked to indicate what percentage of Americans they thought would respond similarly to how they responded. They then participated in a source monitoring exercise to identify whether or not their peer group had similar views and behaviors from which they may have developed their own. They identified the 10 people that first came to mind and evaluated how similar they felt to those people, and how similar they thought those people were to the average American.
The prediction that the psychiatric patients would have lessened false consensus effects, due to the fact that they would not consider themselves or their peer as representative of the average American, did not hold true. Even in light of their differences from the general population due to their current disabilities, they still developed a sense that they were just like the average American. And thus they believed that more people in America acted and thought as they did. Their deviance from the norms of society did not have an effect on the level of false consensus they developed. Likewise, I would predict that children engaged in a specific peer culture would not decrease their level of false consensus simply due to the apparent level of deviance their peer group displayed. This would be independent to the teaching and training they had in their family.
Increased False Consensus Effect
The importance of examining the effects of the peer group and the false consensus effect becomes more apparent when we look at the possibility of engagement in the specific behaviors. Some studies show that increased false consensus due to mere exposure to peer behaviors can lead to a participation in the behaviors in question (e.g., Botvin, Botvin, Baker, Dusenbury, & Goldberg, 1992; Marks, Graham, & Hansen, 1992; Sherman, Pressen, Chassin, Corty, & Olshavsky, 1983).
Marks et al. (1992) demonstrated that estimates of seventh graders who drank alcohol led to a higher rate of participation in drinking behavior. The authors measured the perceived prevalence estimates of alcohol consumption from 378 seventh and eighth grade children. Levels of current alcohol use were identified to control for already existing levels and their influence. The children were asked how many, out of 100 of their peers, have tried using alcohol. Two measures of perceived prevalence rates were measured with a one-year interval between measures. The findings demonstrate that, as the level of perceived consensus increased, so did future participation. Of the children that had perceived the prevalence rates of alcohol use above the median, 30.43% tried using the drug for the first time within a year. This is a significant contrast to the children that rated the prevalence rate of alcohol use below the median. They had an increase in the number of individuals using alcohol of only 15.94%. As the false consensus developed for alcohol use, the rates of actual use for each individual increased as well.
In another study (Botvin et al., 1992), the initiation of smoking behavior among adolescents was linked to the development of a false belief that more people smoked that actually do. In this study, it was demonstrated that an increased perception of smoking behavior among peers as well as adults led to an increase in the rates of use. A questionnaire was given to 916 adolescents in seventh grade and again in ninth grade. The children were first asked to rate their current level of cigarette use on a scale of 1 to 10. They were then asked to rate their perception of the rate of smoking behavior among adults and among individuals of their own age. Results showed that students who believed at least half of adults or at least half of their peers smoked were significantly more likely to become involved in smoking behavior than their counterparts that had a significantly lower perception of smoking prevalence rates. In a comparison of the effects of the perceived consensus of smoking behavior between adult and peers, the effects of the peer false consensus seemed to be the most salient.
In other words, while a false consensus effect regarding either population resulted in higher participation rates, the perceived false consensus effect within the subjects own peer group led to a significantly higher increase in smoking initiations compared to the adult false consensus effect. This demonstrates the magnitude of peer manipulation children may experience in the education institution. Repeated exposure to behavior within the peer group can lead to an increase in the false consensus for that behavior. An increase in the false consensus effect for a specific behavior can increase the likelihood that an individual will initiate the behavior in the future.
Effects of Negative Peer Influence
Because the effects of peer exposure are so influential we need to evaluate what types of behaviors are exemplified and rewarded in many peer groups. In recent years there have been significant increases in antisocial behavior in our nation’s youth, such as drug use, aggression, and violence (Kaufman, Chen, Choy, Chandler et al., 1999; Kaufman, Chen, Choy, Ruddy et al., 1999). As they enter adulthood, we also see a decreased rate of success maintaining long-term interpersonal relationships. This is demonstrated by a high rate of divorce within this cohort (Wallerstein et al., 2000). .Both of these behaviors, poor social and emotional regulation and poor interpersonal strength, may have foundations, at least in part, in destructive peer relationships.
The school years are very critical in the development of interpersonal skills. Because these years are so influential, some have labeled the ages between grades 5 and 8 the “fall out period” (Cohen, 1999). It is at this time that children will develop the skills they need to navigate through our socially complex society. If they experience significant difficulty or feelings of alienation they can develop significant psychosocial impairment. Once damage had occurred psychologically it can be difficult to overcome and become long lasting. It can create further vulnerability to interpersonal disasters throughout life.
During these middle years there are many components that need to be present for children to develop the skills they need to function socially (Elias & Butler, 1993). These include: (a) a sense of competence; (b) good social interactions; (c) a feeling of belongingness;, (d) diversity of routines; and (e) a sense that they are, to some degree, responsible for their personal health and growth.
These factors are both complex and far reaching. They cover a very wide range of elements that children need to have included in their life and education. Without any of these elements, children will begin to veer from the path of functional social development and move toward interpersonal and emotion maladjustment. A complete submersion in a relatively unregulated peer culture can disrupt many of these elements. In such a case, the child may emerge with social deficits that ultimately begin to change the stream of social understanding. In contrast, if a student is placed in a regulated peer culture where the dynamics of the relationships can be monitored and shaped, the probability of meeting the aforementioned needs is increased.
Within a regulated peer culture, when portions of the peer society begin to disrupt constructs necessary for healthy development they can be readily removed or replaced. For example, if significant members of a child’s immediate peer group begin to degrade their feelings of competence, the need for diversity can be utilized to help the child experience a different peer group. Not only are they be removed from a situation that can be detrimental to social and emotional development, but their potential for social competence is increased by introducing them to diversity and changing routines. However, traditional education by its very nature hinders this freedom of change. Children are locked into a relatively unregulated peer culture with virtually no possibility of change. They may quickly be labeled and left to their downward spiral into social isolation and future interpersonal failure. Not all, or even most, children in institutionalized education will take this path. Many will emerge very successful. But the ones that are not successful during these important years may never recover.
Research has demonstrated a clear connection between social maladjustment and psychopathology and problematic peer relationships in the school years (e.g., Deater-Deckard, 2001; Fergusson & Horwood, 1999). Among peer influences emerge several factors that may increase the likelihood of social decline, such as peer rejection, social withdrawal, socialization of deviant behavior, and internalizing social problems (Deater-Deckard, 2001).
Peer rejection seems to not only hinder current social developmental issues, but it continues to be problematic in later relationships and social functioning in adulthood. Children will begin to evaluate who will be rejected and who will be accepted very early in the educational process. This peer rejection is actually a form of victimization that is created through aggressive attacks from other children. The acts of aggression tend to be both overt and covert in their perception and implementation. There can be the overt teasing and alienation that more popular students impose on less accepted students. This cannot only give the feeling of rejection but also an incredible sense of humiliation. Some very damaging outward forms of aggression may include name-calling, gossiping, spreading rumors, prank calls, and forged note passing (Crozier & Dimmock, 1999).
While some of these behaviors can often appear benign, they can be very damaging to the child. Crozier and Dimmock (1999) found that out of 60 students questioned about the negative names and verbal assaults they experience in school, 17 have a negative experience on a daily basis. Children often define a portion of their personal identity by their name, race, and characteristics. When other children exaggerate an aspect of their identity for the purpose of degradation, they are actually attacking their personal identity. Damage to a child’s personal identity will have a significant impact on their social identity and functioning through their life (Crozier and Dimmock, 1999). These attacks were shown to occur throughout the school day in a variety of location such as the lunchroom, the classroom, on breaks, and on the playground. Simply having faculty present did not seem to be a significant deterrent to name calling and demoralizing remarks. It seems that it is not possible for the low number of teachers to continually monitor the behaviors of all the children.
Current teacher to student ratios in the United States equals 1 teacher for 17 students with the numbers increasing to one teacher for 18.3 students in the largest schools (Young, 2000). The only realistic way to monitor the behaviors of children would be to have very low teacher to student ratios.
Other, more covert, types of aggression and rejection can be equally damaging. Behaviors that simply exclude the individual from participation, glaring, and non-verbal gestures would be considered covert because they are not easily seen or perceived by others outside the rejection relationship. It has been shown that children that experience peer rejection in early childhood will often have to deal with social deficits for the rest of their lives.
Bagwell, Newcomb, & Burkowski (1998) found that children that experienced higher rates of peer rejection and peer isolation in school also had higher rates of psychopathology in adulthood. These effects seem to be set in place at a very early age. Children can experience peer rejection as young as kindergarten. Even at this age children tend to develop social handicaps. For example, Keiley, Bates, Dodge, & Pettit (2000) found that kindergartners that experienced peer rejection at that young age demonstrated consistently high rates of behavior problems. They continued with their behavioral problems not only in the early school years, but also through out middle childhood. Their controls that did not experience significant peer rejection showed decreases in behavior problems through middle childhood. It seems that children are especially vulnerable at the early age of a kindergartner.
West, Meek, and Hurst (2000) demonstrated that children are better off regarding their social development if they are allowed to delay the age in which they enter kindergarten. They examine three different groups of children: (a) those that started school at the culturally proposed age and progressed as they should, (b) those that started school at the culturally proposed age but were forced to repeat kindergarten one or more times, and (c) those that were allowed to delay their entry. Academically they found that the delayed entry students had significantly lower ratings identifying them as not learning up to their capabilities.
More interesting was the fact that children that were retained in kindergarten showed a significantly higher rate of social deviance. Twenty-nine percent of the retained students were reported as “acting up” or disrupting the class. These ratings were 40-50% higher than for the non-retained students. Also, the retained students were said to have twice as many problems taking turns and sharing with others as the non-retained students. It seemed that retention in the kindergarten grade was a form of rejection similar to peer rejection. The number of students retained was 9% in both 1993 and 1995 (U.S. Department of education, 2000). That means that 9% of our children will be starting their educational career with social and behavioral deficits already established.
While the previous studies have looked at factors that lead to very outward expressions of development that can have a significant impact on social behavior, there is also research to support the effects of rejection on internal personality characteristics that will also hinder social development. In one study, Rubun, Bukowski, and Parker (1998) demonstrated that children that were rejected and thus socially withdrawn presented higher rates of depression and anxiety. In fact, while the withdrawn behavior develops early in childhood, it does not manifest its entire effects until middle and late childhood. The patterns of social development that are associated with social withdrawal are also fairly salient over time. This means that rejection, and its subsequent withdrawal leads to depressed and anxious adults.
Peer groups continually engage in a process of deviance training. While this may occur through two different mechanisms, modeling and reinforcement, it increases as the peer groups become less supervised (Deater-Deckard, 2001). This refers to a concept of public school structure discussed earlier in this article in which students are placed in a relatively unregulated peer-dominant society. It has been demonstrated that a fairly stable predictor of adolescent antisocial behavior is the amount of unsupervised activities that children engage in during the early school years (e.g., Flannery, Williams, & Vasonyi, 1999; Mahoney & Stattin, 2000; Pettit, Bates, Dodge, & Meese, 1999). Pettit et al. (1999) found that adolescents that engaged in unsupervised activities with their perspective peer groups were associated with higher rates of behavior problems. This is seen when they are compared to their counterparts that participated in activities with high levels of parental monitoring. They found that one of the strongest predictive factors regarding the level of deviance in the adolescent’s behavior was the level of parental monitoring that took place. By parental monitoring, they are referring to the extent in which parents are knowledgeable about their children’s activities, where-abouts, and companions. The higher the rate of parental involvement, the higher the rate of adaptive and prosocial behavior adolescents engaged in.
Flannery et al. (1999) found that as children increased the amount of time they spent with their peers in unsupervised activities they increased in aggression, delinquency, substance abuse, and susceptibility to peer demands. These increases were compared to adolescents that were spending more time at home with their parents. Also, children that engaged in highly structures activities with their peers had lower amounts of deviant behavior in comparison to their counterparts that played relatively unsupervised. The reasons for this phenomenon are certainly varied. However, researchers have identified several different behaviors and aspects of peer social interaction that can lead to the increased social maladjustments.
One theory suggests that behaviors are simply taught to each other through conversation (Dishion, McCord, & Poulin, 1999). As children are sitting together around the lunch table, playing on the playground, or exchanging dialogue in free class time or during art projects they are discussing possible deviant acts. Through discussion they are also reinforcing each other for the deviant behaviors in which they have already engaged. For example, if one child talks about the marker that he stole from the teacher’s desk, it is probable that peers will give positive reinforcement, such as praise and admiration, for the action. This would not only encourage them to re-engage in the behavior, but it would suggest that they may find even more reinforcement if the act were “bigger and better.” Other children in the peer group may also decide to participate in the newly learned behavior due to a desire for the same reinforcement and acceptance that the first child received. The development of deviant behavior problems such as aggression, violence, and substance abuse seems to be entrenched in the peer group culture deeper than simply the conversational level. Social affiliation in deviant peer groups seems to be directly associated with an increase in the deviant behavior. Boys that were abstinent regarding tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana at age 13 to 14 were statistically likely to initiate these behaviors by age 15 or 16 if the boys found and maintained friendships with boys that engaged in such activities (Dishion, Capaldi, Spracklen, & Li, 1995).
Dishion, McCord, and Poulin (1999) found that even in the absence of direct deviant behavior and talk, children tend to increase their deviant activity if they belong to a peer group that endorses such behavior. In their study, children in the experimental peer group were engaged in activities and assignments that promoted prosocial goals and self-regulation of their behavior. They used peer reinforcement that resembled the initial reinforcement to encourage participation in the activities and assignments. Even within the confines of the experimental group, which abstained from deviant behavior and talk, peers had a significant increase in their deviant behavior at 3 months, 1 year, and 3 years following the termination of the study. Once these deviant behaviors develop it seems that they are very difficult to extinguish, even through adulthood. Patterson, Dishion, and Yoerger (1999) found that deviant behavior that developed in childhood, such as sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, relationship problems, and criminal convictions tend to increase across adolescence and adulthood. The effects of deviance training are long lasting and socially impairing. As previously demonstrated, the lack of parental monitoring can be a major contributor for this phenomenon of deviant behavior teaching. If a caregiver were actively involved in the children’s relationships the children would not be reinforced for the deviant behavior, rather they would be punished or reprimanded.
There seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence that children socialized in a peer-dominant environment are at higher risk for developing social maladjustment issues than those that are socialized in a parent monitored environment. This becomes a significant issue when we look at the rates of aggression, violence, drug use, and sexual promiscuity in our children. In 1996, 5% of all 12th graders reported that they had been injured with a weapon in the last 12 months while at school or at a school function (Kaufman, Chen, Choy, Chandler et al., 1999). Another 12% reported having been injured without the use of a weapon. In 1993, 76 students were murdered or committed suicide while at school and another 7,357 while away from school (Kachur et al., 1996). The high rates of violence and aggression instill a sense of fear in children. They often do not feel safe in their learning environment. They may engage in deviance training within their peer groups as a means of dealing with the fear and anticipation of aggressive oppression. Between 1989 and 1995, the number of children that avoided a specific place in their school for fear of violence increased to 2.1 million. In 1996, 8% of 12th graders used alcohol in school and there was a significant increase in the use of marijuana and stimulants since 1992 (Kaufman, Chen, Choy, Chandler et al., 1999). There has also been an increasing rate of school dropouts. In 1998 the dropout rates among 10-12th graders in the United States were 11.8%. Nearly one and a half million children were so disillusioned with the school environment that they were not able, or willing, to complete their education. There may be a relationship between the increases in deviant behavior, aggression, violence, and substance abuse, and the school dropout rates. This appears to be related to the same issues discussed earlier regarding the effects of unregulated peer group socialization. As discussed briefly earlier, one possible solution for this peer victimization and subsequent social maladjustment is a higher degree of parental involvement in education. It has been demonstrated that deviance, deviance training, and delinquency decreases and prosocial activity increases as parental monitoring increases (Flannery et al., 1999; Pettit et al., 1999; Sim, 2000).
Increased Parental Monitoring
To circumvent the problems resulting from deviant peer culture an environment can be constructed in which the dynamics and membership of the prospective peer groups are closely monitored and controlled by adults or parental figures. This would decrease the involvement of deviance-oriented youths with children that could potentially excel in academic and social development. A decrease in involvement within delinquent peer culture could result in a decreased in deviance talk, peer rejection, and demoralization.
One format that could accomplish increased monitoring is the home education model. This may be effective by allowing for a higher level of parental monitoring and increased peer supervision. Home educated children, by the nature of their education, are raised in a parent-dominant environment compared to the peer dominance found in traditionally schooled environments. This gives them a significantly smaller opportunity to engage in and be influenced by deviance talk. Because of the regulated peer culture, children can be kept further away from problematic children, thus removing from their schemas of social behavior those that are antisocial and maladjusted; they can then be placed in peer groups that are prosocial and achievement oriented. If this takes place we will observe an availability heuristic that evokes images of prosocial behavior rather than antisocial behavior. They will not experience a significant increase in their false consensus effect and thus be less likely to engage in undesirable behaviors.
In a study examining this concept, Delahooke (as cited in Ray & Wartes, 1991) found that children that were home educated had a greater focus on family issues and family functioning than did children from a traditional educational format. Consistent with research discussed earlier, the researcher also found that the children educated in the traditional format were more influenced by their peers and more concerned with peers than were their home-educated counterparts.
In one of the largest studies to date examining the socialization of home educated children compared to traditionally educated children, the researchers found that home educated children may be more socially well adjusted. In this study, Shyers (1992) compared and contrasted the beliefs and behaviors of 70 home educated children and 70 traditionally educated children on self-concept, assertiveness, and quality of social play and interactions. When the children were tested regarding self-concept and assertiveness there were no significant differences. Both groups of children seemed to possess equivalent characteristics. However, when the quality of their social interactions was observed, the traditionally schooled children consistently displayed aggressive, loud, and competitive behavior. The mean score for their problem behavior scores was actually eight times higher than the mean problem behavior score for the home-educated children.
There have also been several studies that demonstrate the increased sociability of home-educated children in respect to their self-perceptions and self-concept (Medlin, 2000). Taylor (1986) and Kelly (1991) both found significant increases in self-concept in home-educated children compared to children from conventional schools. In another study, Hedin (1991) found no significant difference between the two populations suggesting the home-educated children were at least as strong as traditionally schooled children in regards to the development of their self-concept.
While peer interaction may be important for successful personality development, the quality of these interactions is equally important. Children that live in a peer- dominant culture tend to be at greater risk for negative peer influences, such as rejection and deviance training. These social interactions find their strength by using the availability heuristic to alter the false consensus effect. Research has demonstrated that increased parental monitoring can increase successful socialization and personality development. The positive increase in social behavior may be due in part to the supervision and regulation of peer group membership and peer activities.
Future research that directly examines the effects of parental monitoring across a variety of social constructs would be beneficial. The potential for socially inhibited behavior resulting from parental monitoring could be explored as well. It would also be interesting to examine the effects of increased parental monitoring within various contexts and/or activities.
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