Right to Learn, Part 4: The Peer Problem, Part A

If you are new to Minds On Fire, you may want to start with True Confessions — it cuts to the core of what I’ll be exploring on the blog. You can find Part 1 of Right to Learn here.

13 Ways of Looking at the Issue: A Magpie’s View of the Peer Problem

“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate to others the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible…’— C.J. Jung

The short version: A child’s feeling truly accepted often has more to do with their peer group than with the individual child’s social development.

Children have a need to feel accepted by their peers. It is a central, universal drive. Acceptance by one’s peers has a profound impact on how one feels about oneself. A growing number of studies show that a sense of belonging impacts not just the development of a positive self-concept but also academic performance.

“The people I met were all skimming along the surface of what I was drowning in.”

My friend Rob was telling me about the feeling of isolation he felt as a kid growing up asynchronous in a rural town where he didn’t encounter other kids like himself. Though he is one of the smartest people that I know, he didn’t think of himself as smart. His high school principal even told him, “You know, school isn’t for everyone.” A virtual invitation to drop out. He felt alone and disconnected…damaged.

We had been talking about the loneliness that we had felt as kids and about the many parenting decisions we had made with an eye towards sparing our kids (both second-graders) the demoralizing sense of alienation from our peers we both felt as kids.

As kids, (a thousand miles and a couple of decades apart) neither of us had been able to make sense of the dissonance we felt when we were around our classmates. Each of us had had a sense that there must be something wrong with us. There had to be a reason, we thought to ourselves, that we felt utterly alone in our peers’ company while they all seemed to revel in it. What was wrong with us?

Things got better for me in high school. There was a change of schools and with the change of schools came a shift in student culture. At school, I could have a conversation that veered from who had the greatest fastball of all time to what was the meaning of “Jean Genie” to whether Bacon was really Shakespeare and on to the nature of consensus reality before returning to baseball. Just as importantly, no one would have thought to make fun of me for such conversation—at least not to my face.

Like many kids in our position, like my mother before me, we felt that the fault lay with us. What we didn’t know as kids was that our feelings of isolation and self-doubt said nothing about our fitness as people. Those feelings said everything about a lack of like-spirited peers.

Feeling accepted for who you are, enables you to love yourself and to more easily connect with others. Feeling that you must choose between being true to yourself and being accepted can have a host of long-term consequences.

Meaningful companionship requires not just shared interests or spirit but also a shared notion of friendship. Research suggests that notions of friendship may be tied more closely to intellectual age than chronological age. This may make it difficult for children to form meaningful bonds when they have no access to cognitive peers[1].

My other friend Rob made a comment while a few of us were sharing stories of our miserable grade-school experiences. “Sorry, guys. I don’t know why I didn’t have the same bad experiences. I don’t want my daughters to have them. It’s a real concern. I get it. But, things went pretty well for me. There wasn’t really anything special about my school. I guess I was just lucky.”

His wife chimed in: “Honey, be real. You started kindergarten when you were four and went straight from first to third grade.”

He laughed, “Oh yeah. There’s that.”

Peers are our frame of reference. Our culture. Our tribe. Our mirror.

When kids feel out of synch with their peers, they may take this as a negative reflection on themselves. Their notion of what is normal, likable and acceptable is often in large part a reflection of what their peers like and accept. If a child’s peers don’t accept them as they are, it is hard for the child to accept him or herself. And, the peer group may not know what to make of an outlier in its midst or how to respond to them.

Note to my sixteen-year-old self: the critical question was not so much

“was I really a loser dweeb in junior high school?”

but more

“was there something wrong with me?”

“were those feelings of awkwardness and alienation foreseeable and avoidable?”


“did those feelings have a long-term impact?”

“What does it mean? What do you do when your seven-year-old tells you that she doesn’t want to be smart that she just wants to be normal?” I have heard these questions posed by parents so many times over the past couple of years. It breaks my heart.

“I was a good girl. I never told anyone how I felt because they would have known that something was wrong with me. I pretended to be happy and play with dollies and talk about what the other girls liked to talk about. My parents never knew. They never suspected. But I was so alone. And, honestly, I was in high school before I had a real friend.”

“…Till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it.” — The Able Seaman, The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

“Just be yourself.” We sometimes say this to our children to instill confidence. My parents did. “They’ll love you. You are a great kid. You have so much to offer.”

“Just be yourself.” It holds such promise.

It is a truism. Though a cliche, there is something to it. People do tend to perform best when they feel good about themselves. But there is a catch: feeling good about yourself isn’t something you can just turn on. Comfort with ourselves develops over time. A whole complex of factors figures into how comfortable we are just being ourselves in front of others. A supportive peer environment is an important one.

If you are a kid and your mom or dad says “just be yourself” and history has told you that people are ok with who you are then it is a reminder that may bring confidence and comfort; “Right. Just be myself.”

But if you are a kid that has largely been an outlier unembraced for who you are, “just be yourself” rings hollow: a reminder that you are alone. Being yourself is why kids teased you or didn’t invite you into their game.

And, if you are a kid who has hidden who you are, it may remind you how ok you aren’t.

One of our jobs as parents is to make sure our kids have companions who embrace and accept them when they are just being themselves so that “just be yourself” can be a phrase which brings confidence.

For many kids, the primary and secondary school years are fraught with a tension between being accepted by their peers and being true to themselves. The more atypical a kid is, the more likely they are to feel fundamentally torn between being authentic and being liked. As parents, we may take this tension for granted as a normal part of growing up.

We may, as my father did, feel like enduring this tension is a critical exercise in character-building.

It is not.

As adults, we take control of our peer group as best we can. We try to surround ourselves with those with whom we can be ourselves. We want to be with people that enjoy our company and get our jokes — people that are interested in what we have to say (whether or not they agree with us). We want to be with people whose company gives us comfort or energy. Some of us are more comfortable than others when we find ourselves surrounded by people with whom we don’t find comity. But, I don’t think many of us would prefer to be surrounded by people that have no interest in what we have to say and who think our jokes are stupid or weird.

Children have much less control over who they are surrounded by than adults. Their personalities and their sense of how they fit into the world are in flux as they progress towards adulthood. The kids that surround our kids have a huge and often lasting impact on how they feel about themselves and how well they do in school.

For kids, peers matter
…a lot.

Next Post: The Peer Problem – Part B: a systematic examination at the issue of peerdom with regards to asynchronous development and why it is such a critical and often overlooked issue.


Right to Learn, Part 4: The Peer Problem, Part A by Edward Spiegel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “Right to Learn, Part 4: The Peer Problem, Part A”

  1. thank you so very much for this post and all of your past ones as well. This post resonated deeply with me because you have perfectly described our teenager – almost eerily – and down to the same comments of wishing that he wasn’t smart and that he just wanted to be “normal”. I thought trying to find peers would get easier the older he has gotten but sadly it has not. I have seen him slowly retreat into his shell because when he was younger, each time he would try to reach out, he was either bullied, made fun of, called some kind of name or they would have no clue about what he was talking about….and now that he is older, he tells me that he doesn’t even want to bother to try. He is ashamed to wear a favorite Chemistry t-shirt because he is tired of peers making comments that they don’t understand it or they poke fun at him for it….so now he only wears it when he is home. If I had a dime for every time he said he wished so badly that he could just sit and talk with another friend on a regular basis about chemistry, black holes, particle physics and be able to carry on a conversation with them, I would be rich. I have friends who have shared that he just needs to suck it up, that he will never find a peer group and that life is all about fitting in and learning how to be part of a group. That makes me truly sad. If there is one thing that I feel like I have failed miserably at as a parent, it is this – that I can not help my child find just even ONE friend that he can connect with and feel “normal” for a period of time. Thank you for letting me know that we are not alone with this problem.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You are definitely not alone — nor is your son, but it may take a while for him to discover that. That is a tough period — even if parents have some ideas about how to help, he is at an age where it might be natural to rebel.

      I am sorry to hear that your son is having a rough time of it. Your friends how think that he should just “suck it up” just don’t know what they are talking about. That was my dad’s attitude (he had some bitterness about his experience graduating from high school at 16 — but he grew up in a very poor family and had no support network and no understanding of who he was).

      When I get together with my son’s classmates’ parents, it is really clear that for the most part those that got through their teens feeling happy and connected and open and continued to feel that way in adulthood were those that had true peers — maybe not a horde of them but enough that they always had people around whom they could be themselves.

      As adults, we have opportunities to find our peer groups — but if we didn’t have true peers as kids, we may not have experience just “being ourselves” — we haven’t had any practice. I’ll be getting into that a bit in the next post which will look at the issue more formally.

      Maybe there is some sort of afterschool club that appeals to kids with his interests? One advisor mentioned to me, a kid might not need a lot of friends — one really good friend can go a long way towards developing a sense that you are ok.

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