Peers are important, especially for teens. As Judith Harris in The Nurture Assumption makes clear, peers have a strong influence in socializing one another. And teens are fascinated by the novelty of someone different. Perhaps they are attracted by the apparent self-confidence of a braggart or a bully, or the delinquent behavior of an agemate who flaunts the law. Probation departments have rules that forbid delinquents from associating with other probationers. Worrying about your child’s companions is legitimate. Children copy the behavior of their friends.
Parents are concerned that their child will identify with and copy undesirable traits. Like probation departments, they try to monitor their child’s friends. Both probation departments and parents have had relatively small success.
What about “people who are not like us?” Friends that appear different, however, are not necessarily bad. Your child may see this person as a down-and-outer, someone who needs friendship and compassion. Or he may be drawn by the loyalty of someone from a different social class who was willing to stand up for him against a bully. Friends are valuable. High school friends can last a lifetime. A wise parent will try to find out what their child finds attractive in his or her friends before thoughtlessly dismissing them.
Listen to your teen. Observe him or her. Where does he show an interest? What are her passions? Assuming these are positive, encourage your teenager to participate in groups that share what he or she values. Is your teen interested in sports? Encourage him to join a neighborhood athletic club. Play on a team. Learn to swim. Attend his or her events. Sports teams share an ethic of hard work and team-building.
Other passions besides sports exist. Encourage an interest in working with others of his or her age to learn anything from computer skills to fashion design, from art to dog-training. Is she interested in church, in politics, in saving our environment? Support her working with like-minded peers. A common task is binding. Attachments grow as people do things together.