IN A 1995 REVIEW ARTICLE, Judith Harris proposed a provocative theory on child and adolescent development. After reviewing the research done in this area, she concluded that parents’ behaviours do not have any long-term influence on child and adolescent outcomes. Instead, she proposed that, beyond the influence of genetic eﬀects, children’s peer groups outside their homes are the primary source of long-term influence on their lives.
Her theory was controversial and has attracted its fair share of critics. My own view is that both our parents and peers exert long-term influences on our lives, although in some areas of our lives, peer influence may exceed parental influence. Hence, I appreciate Harris’ emphasis on the influence of one’s peers. One example that has been observed across many countries is the spoken accents of immigrants’ children. To illustrate, my children (aged five and eight), who were born and raised in the US, speak English with an American accent (picked up from their peers in school) rather than with the Singaporean accent my wife and I use at home.
There is also research suggesting that the type of friends surrounding teenagers influences a range of outcomes, including the likelihood of suicide attempts, drug and alcohol use, and engagement in sexual activity. In a 2008 research study, Carrie La Ferle and Kara Chan studied advertising and social influences on Singaporean teenagers’ endorsement of materialistic values (i.e., the pursuit of material possessions as a means to attain happiness). The authors found that the level of advertisement viewing had minimal influence on teenagers’ materialism. Rather, teenagers whose peers influenced their consumption patterns and who strongly desired to imitate media celebrities were more materialistic.
What about peer influences on teenagers’ spiritual lives? A 2006 research study by Kelly Schwartz examined the religious faith of more than 7,000 teenagers (mostly from the US and Canada) aged 14-18 years old who were attending a Christian youth conference.
The authors found that teenagers who had greater support for their faith from both parents and friends tended to have stronger religious faith; however, the influence of peer support was stronger than that of parental support. Nonetheless, the influence of parents cannot be minimised. The authors also found that parental influence on the teenagers’ religious faith was partially mediated by the influence of friends. In other words, it is possible that these parents helped to shape their children’s faith and also channelled them into faith-based peer groups which, in turn, strengthened their faith.
Perhaps the above findings on the critical influence of peers on adolescents’ lives should not surprise us too much. The book of Proverbs provides several admonishments about the influence of our friends: “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24, NIV); “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered.” (Proverbs 22:24, NIV).
I conclude with two practical suggestions for parents and Christian youth workers.
First, Christian youth workers need to harness the transformative influence of peers on teenagers’ lives. Is it possible that the friends in a teenager’s youth group might have a greater influence on his/her spiritual life than the adult leaders in the youth group? I do not know, but I will not rule that out.
Second, parents may have to come to terms with the likelihood that their influence on their children’s faith will gradually decline over time; conversely, the influence of their children’s peers will increase throughout adolescence.
Are your teenage kids’ best friends attending church? If so, your kids are more likely to be attending church. Therefore, one of the best gifts Christian parents can provide for their teenage children is the gift of good Christian friends.
Of course, parents cannot directly select their children’s friends. But they can play a role in channelling them into Sunday Schools and other faith-based groups.
I know that worked for me. The people I befriended as a teenager in Wesley Methodist Church’s Sunday School have had a profoundly positive influence on my faith. Twenty-five years later, they continue to be among my best friends and role models. (In fact, one of them requested that I write this article!)