By Thomas Trigg, Head of School, Cape Cod Academy

Admit it. Don’t you sometimes worry that your child’s choices or behavior reflect poorly on you?

The truth, however, is that your child’s choices and behavior stem from a lot of influences, many of them social, and some of the most powerful are driven by the peers they spend so much time with. I’m not giving you a full pass on your role as a parent, but the research is clear: Who your kids spend time with, the values reinforced in that setting, and the strategies they develop for establishing themselves among peers are crucial to their success.

I was thinking about this last week as I was trying to clean up for a new school year and looked at a piece of untidy newsprint on the wall of one of our beautiful − and otherwise thoroughly tidy − science labs. It held the unmistakable authenticity hallmarks of a small group decision process: multiple colors of magic marker, different handwriting styles, and unpolished diction. It said, “Our Social Contract.”

The sheet is now an artifact of a previous year. It will be removed and replaced by a new agreement among a new group of students − be it an advisor group of nine kids, a class of 12, a grade of 25, or a whole middle school of 65 kids. It has to be rebuilt from scratch each year, because an effective social contract has to be a living expression that is deliberately consented to and referred to often when we are wondering whether our behavior is fair, ideal, or healthy.

What exactly the social contract said last year is less important than two things: 1) the fact that a community of students chose to describe ideal behavior in broad and general terms; and 2) the fact that kids actually refer to the ideals of that social contract as they encounter conflict amongst each other or try to make decisions or advocate for change (among themselves or with adults).

The influence of the social contract is real and it points to two things that are less concrete than the social contract:

  • Expectations are more powerful than rules.
  • Peer pressure can be good.

Positive Peer Pressure, as well call it at Cape Cod Academy, is a crucial factor in effecting a community ethic. But is also crucial for promoting individual growth. Individual kids work harder because it’s clear that is valued by peers here. Individual kids treat others with respect and compassion because that is valued by peers (and because disrespect is called out and censured by peers). Individual kids try out for a new sport or join a club or run for a leadership position because they know it’s safe here.

Positive peer pressure builds habits and confidence and competence that we carry with us out into the world and can apply even when the setting or people around us aren’t as encouraging as in a school or might even be challenging us.

I suspect this is what you want to foster in your children. And probably you have. But you can’t do it alone. You also have to be sure their peers and school environment are encouraging them in this direction too.