I grew up feeling like peer pressure was always negative. Don't fall to peer pressure and do drugs! Don't fall to peer pressure and drink! Don't fall to peer pressure and smoke! You don't have to wear/eat/do what your friends are wearing/eating/doing. If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you? Etc., etc. Now I do agree that peer pressure can be a very negative thing. Kids will pick up bad behaviors from their peers and will act differently in order to fit in...and it isn't always in a good situation. However, conforming to the group can be very positive in teaching kids new behaviors and reversing some of their negative ones. It is ingrained in us to follow those around us, and it starts early.
Take for instance this conversation that I was able to witness today between four little girls ages 2-5. My daughter, Kate, age 4, was one of these little girls. There was also S, age 5, A, age 3, and L, age 2. Notice how the younger girls' opinions changed regularly to conform to what the older girls wanted, and ultimately how they all decided on the same outcome.
Me: "Ok! Time for lunch! We're going to have cheese pizza, watermelon and grapes!"
K (while whining): "I don't LIKE pizza! I don't LIKE watermelon! I want a sandwich instead!!!"
A: "I want a sandwich!"
L: "I sandwich!"
S: "I LOVE pizza! Can I have a BIG piece?"
A: "I want big pizza!"
L: "I teetza!"
K: "Well, I don't like pizza. Pizza is gross!"
S: "Pizza isn't gross! It's yummy!"
K: "Ok, but not pepperoni pizza! Mommy, can I have pizza, but no pepperonis?"
Me: "Sure. Do you want grapes or watermelon?"
S: "Watermelon!! I love watermelon!"
A: "I want watermelon too!"
L: "Wawa melon!"
K (my non-conformist....): "I want grapes."
A: "I want grapes too."
S: "I want grapes AND watermelon!"
After some time eating, everyone decided that they loved pizza and watermelon and grapes. All 4 kids ate all of their food and the whining had stopped. Kate has really been having a lot of attitude when it comes to eating lately, and it is driving me crazy. I know it is just a normal stage of her trying to assert her independence, but it is very frustrating when she takes he favorite food from the day before and then declares that it is gross and that she doesn't like it anymore. Add in a little peer pressure from 3 of her friends and she magically eats all of it without complaining.
Then there is the whole inclusion thing. What's the point of inclusion?? To have special needs kids be around and interact with typical kids. There is a definite benefit to the special needs kids, one of the most important being that they will strive to behave like typical kids. They will learn the social norms and what is expected of them. They talk with typical kids and become friends with those kids. In this instance, conforming to their peers is the the result for which we are striving. Andrew, especially, does not want to be any different than his peers. He was embarrassed to wear his leg braces to school with shorts until some kids told him they thought they were cool. He doesn't want to use a word processor to help with typing and worked hard to learn how to write over the summer because "nobody else uses one." He wanted to go in the front of the school like typical kids instead of the easier to access back entrance for special needs kids. He wants to be like his friends. We are trying our hardest to make him feel included, even if that means that we have to do things that are a little more difficult for us.
Now, we do emphasize that he needs to be his own person and that he needs to make good decisions regarding his behavior. Our hope for all of our children is that even while conforming to fit in that they will be strong-willed enough in their values and beliefs to not fall to peer pressure when the decisions are negative. Luckily, we have a few years before they are going to be really put to the test.