Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

School Success: Who Are Your Friends?

July 15, 1996

In counseling, I often meet parents who are distressed and dismayed with their underachieving teen-age children. They know their children are bright and capable. These children have had a track record of good school grades, hard work and intellectual curiosity. Then the bottom falls out - either in their middle school or high school years. Why?

They have changed friends and taken the attitudes and behaviors of their new peer group. They stop doing homework, live for social occasions with their friends and start to resent or ignore the demands of school. No amount of parental pleading, long talks about the importance of education or parental restriction seems to make a difference.

Peer Influence. Newsweek magazine highlighted how peers influence academic success in its July 8, 1996 issue. A research study of 20,000 high school teens in nine public schools in Wisconsin and California found that a student’s immediate peer group had the greatest influence on their academic performance.

The study compared the academic careers of students who began high school with the same grades but joined with different types of friends during the years that followed. Youngsters who had academically oriented friends did better in school than those who chose to hang out with underachieving and delinquent friends. Researchers concluded that by high school, the influence of friends on school performance and drug use is more substantial than the influence of parents.

That is good news for the highly motivated student whose friendships include other striving teens who take academics seriously and for whom achievement means a lot. However, the article points out, "the prevailing attitude among students is that 'getting by is good enough.' And there is substantial pressure on students to underachieve.

Do "birds of a feather flock together," or does the "flock dictate how birds should think and behave?" For parents who do their best to install a work ethic, the value of education and religious/family values into their children's lives - only to see the peer group sweep them away - the answer is the latter.

Popular culture. Foreign exchange students I recently interviewed pointed out how many American students seem caught up in social life, jobs and entertainment. These seem more important than education. They were struck by the easy, friendly social climate and how independent teens are.

In foreign countries, students understand the importance of academic success on future success and opportunities. Many young people I see in counseling expect eventual success in life. They verbalize wanting college and professional success despite their current low performance. They intend to shape up eventually, but right now their friends and their freedom are more important.

Parents understand how the world increasingly favors the well-educated, how attitudes harden and how educational deficits accumulate. Many young people are being derailed in life by their need for peer acceptance in the here and now.

Academics are not cool. Preppies - college preparatory students who are also caught up in popularity and social fun - try to have it both ways. They do well enough in school to stay on track for college. They also have to play down their academic striving to be "cool" and accepted. When "push comes to shove" they understand they need a measure of classroom success for parental approval and admission to college.

The preppies tight, exclusive social circle is a threat of self-esteem to the less privileged. Students who find preppy snobbiness and rejection offensive gravitate to groups who downplay the importance of education. They buy into the whole package of social disdain and rebellion and engage in self-destructive behaviors. If their friends drink, smoke, use drugs, have sex and carouse, they will too.

Many students are caught in a dilemma - what do they do when they have a major falling out with a best friend or are suddenly on the outs with their former friends? Switching groups of friends to find acceptance is often a turning point in their descent into unmotivated school performance. They take on the attitudes of their new friends.

Some unmotivated groups have been together since early elementary years. Their lack of social skills and/or peer rejection forced them to band together for social support. Lack of enthusiasm for school has been a part their coping strategy from early on.

Who are the winners? It’s the "nerds" and the "brains" who find themselves on the outside of social popularity and concentrate on academics. Their revenge is in living well and doing well in their post-high school environments. They get parental support and attention from teachers for their strong academic efforts.

What can parents do?

  • Train children early. Having a good foundation of values, goals and work habits are crucial before they hit the challenge of peer pressure. Help them develop special talents and interests to bolster self-esteem.
  • Encourage church affiliations and other group activities that help them associate with peers with high standards and values. Know your children’s friends and encourage relationships with children of high standards.
  • Emphasize early social skills and awareness of opportunities for quality childhood friendships. Discourage friendships with peers who have antisocial attitudes.
  • Communicate with teens and help them work through peer and friend rejection. Help them rebound by learning to be patient and to cultivate new quality friendships.