Trying to impress one's peers can be productive - nothing less would have willed me on to try mountain climbing or to dare challenge authority. The time the sixth form stood together against our headmaster, after he wrongfully blamed us for some misdemeanour, was my first taste of solidarity and commitment. But despite these common positive experiences of peer influence, peer
relations are getting a bad press.
Contemporary discussions about peer relations, especially among the young, are largely focused on their negative potential. Whatever the social problem - be it teenage sex, increased numbers of girls smoking, boys behaving badly or bullying in the school-yard - there is a growing perception that peer pressure is to blame. The latest Home Office study on young people and crime identifies the influence of peers as a key factor in offending. The fact that peers may be a positive
influence is rarely recognised.
But attacks on peer pressure also underestimate the importance of letting young people deal with different pressures and influences in order to develop their skills in making choices. We seem to be handing them a way of avoiding personal responsibility for their actions when we insist that peer pressure explains all. If we allow the young to explain their behaviour through blaming others, we deny them any sense that they can make
For example, the
Government's recent wrong-headed initiative promoting virginity as cool, predictably suggested that young men and women are forced into sexual experimentation because of negative peer
pressure. It seems at best naive to accept at face value a teenage boy's response that he only pursued his hormonal groping "cos my mates made me do it". Even in the cliched scenario of gangs of youths egging each other on, if the rest of the gang are hell-bent on joy-riding, the individual can still choose not to participate.
We are so worried about peer relations that adults are increasingly observng, checking and interfering in young people's relationships. This has gone
further than the age-old parental warning not to hang out with so-and-so as they are a bad
influence - it is becoming institutionalised.
Youth worker Stuart Waiton points out in
his forthcoming book, Scared of the Kids, that even the police are encouraged to intervene to break up peer groups, and that this has been one of the main aims of the Government-sponsored curfews. "This effectively gives the state sanction to tell kids who they should and should not hang around with," he says.
Intervening in friendship formation is one of the most worrying aspects of the present anti-peer climate. Adults persistently tell children they should be suspicious of their peers as a potential threat. This is best highlighted in schools' anti-bullying schemes.
I was horrified by one anti-bullying manual for primary school children that told them that if classmates spread rumours, pull faces, tease them or call them names, this is "peer abuse". While calling someone four-eyes or telling tales about Jane's mum and dad may be evidence of childish cruelty, to teach children that their peers' insensitive behaviour is abuse can only scare them away from developing friendships.
It is now accepted that bullying includes "exclusion from friendship groups" or "deliberately leaving individuals out of groups of classmates". But surely this is nonsense. While negotiating relations when you're young can be difficult, even painful, the freedom to discover who you get on with and why can be a useful part of development. Being allowed to choose one group of peers as friends over another helps the young learn about commitment and loyalty. They learn precious lessons about themselves, relationships and life when allowed to define themselves, both with and against their peers. These lessons happen in the playground; behind the bike-shed; on street corners; away from the prying eyes of adults. By looking for problems in peer relations we are in danger of
stigmatising that most enriching part of the human experience - friendship. Time to leave the kids and their mates alone.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas, an independent thinktank. See academy@InstituteOfIdeas.com