kitchen table math, the sequel: public service announcement - marijuana is stronger today

Sunday, July 31, 2011

public service announcement - marijuana is stronger today

Around these parts most adults, including therapists who treat adolescents, seem to agree that marijuana is a reasonably benign drug parents shouldn't get too worked up about. I have now heard of at least three different therapists advising parents not to lower the boom when they learned their child was smoking pot.

That has never seemed right to me, possibly because it isn't right:

A: Marijuana has gotten stronger.

B: Marijuana use is causally related to development of schizophrenia in some cases.

C: Marijuana use is associated with lower educational attainment.

D: The younger you begin using it, the more dangerous its effects (and vice versa).

We've been pretty ferocious on the subject of drugs.

We told C, in these words: We have two kids with major brain problems; we don't want another one. [synchronicity alert: C has just this moment come into the room to tell me he's watching a really good show called Weeds. sigh]

Anyway, we told C. that if we found out he was drinking or using drugs, he would be spending his entire adolescence inside our house.

That has worked out pretty well, in part because C. is a fairly easy kid to manage, as kids go, and in part because the other kids in his school all got the same ruling from their own folks, who appear to mean business. C. has one friend whose parents ground him for a year. And that was just for drinking, albeit a whole lot of drinking, according to C.

I realize that some kids are easier to manage than others, but still. As I understand it (no time to fact-check at the moment), the later a person begins using any kind of drug, the better, and we've told this to C on several occasions. When C. was a freshman, I attended a lecture given by a mom whose son died of heroin addiction; her husband, the boy's step-dad, told us that a parent's job is to get his child to age 21 without drinking or using drugs.

Few parents are going to hit that mark, but Ed and I have found that having the mark is extremely helpful.

Now C. is lying on the sofa laughing over some DARE counselor who crashed the DARE van into a tree because he was drunk. Haha!

Actually, that is pretty funny. I'm not a fan of DARE.

I'm a fan of grounding your kid for a year if need be.

42 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I don't use pot (or any other illegal drugs), and I don't expect that my son will either—he won't even take over-the-counter medicine like ibuprofen unless convinced that it is medically necessary. But I'm far less worried about pot than about alcohol, which kills huge numbers of people every year.

Note: I do drink small amounts of alcohol, but I try to model safe behavior for my son—like not bicycling for an hour after having a beer.

Catherine Johnson said...

boy

It's a good thing C. is just about grown. I seem to be rapidly losing my ability to model good behavior for my child, or even just keep my mouth shut about (possible) former bad behavior.

I'm still pretty good at leveling threats, however.

Allison said...

--or even just keep my mouth shut about (possible) former bad behavior.

This is a point most parents really don't get. If you laughingly tell your children about your own exploits, it will normalize them for your children.

Your bigger point, though, that children told drug or drinking use is UNACCEPTABLE behavior, and the consequences will be extremely painful, is important, and it's extremely difficult to maintain once kids leave for college. The colleges will not back you up. They go out of their way to cover up drug and drinking abuse at their schools, look the other way at all but the most egregious behaviors, and in many schools, prevent the local police from intervening. There are simply no immediate consequences to extensive, repeated drug and drinking abuse--not until someone's dead from it. Short of that, the only consequences are personal/social and long term intellectual--but the horizon for those consequences is too far away for the kids to keep track of it.
And kids DO die from it at college.

Colleges are very much permissive parents who look the other way until something terrible happens, then freak and become authoritarian parents, overreacting in response.

In college, what keeps kids from doing drugs is simply subculture: if they stay in a subculture where drugs aren't used, they won't. If they find themselves in a subculture where drugs are, they will. Very very few people can fight subculture, and young adults living in these worlds can't. It's not "active peer pressure" at all, but it doesn't need to be. It's about acclimating to what's "normal"--you no longer notice if your behavior is out of bounds because there's not enough "real life" around you in college to remind you of those boundaries. Instead, you just calibrate based on the median of what's happening around you.

GSWOP, I obviously don't know you or your son, but I knew plenty of kids in college who wouldn't take an ibuprofen but had no problem taking LSD. The self denial and self deception of human brains knows no boundaries.

Bonnie said...

I went to college in one of the druggiest eras (around 1980, the coke epidemic) at an extremely druggy urban university. I have never mentioned any bit of what I saw or did in college to my kids. It is none of their business. My husband went to a rural university with an extremely strong binge-drinking culture, and yes, participated quite a bit. He has horror stories to tell from that era - kids killed and lost in the snow and injured. I don't want him to even tell the bad stories to our kids though. Again, I think it is none of our kids business.

The reality is that the only way to keep kids away from a drug and/or boozing subculture in high school and college is to raise a geek. The real true geeks were the only people I knew who didn't do drinking games and kegs at the least. Most parents do not want to raise geeks, so they turn a blind eye.

PhysicistDave said...

Bonnie wrote:

>The reality is that the only way to keep kids away from a drug and/or boozing subculture in high school and college is to raise a geek. The real true geeks were the only people I knew who didn't do drinking games and kegs at the least. Most parents do not want to raise geeks, so they turn a blind eye.

Yes, I was one of those geeks: I never had any interest in pot. In fact, I was not interested in alcohol. I went to Caltech (where, of course, *everyone* is a geek): close to half the kids in our dorm did not drink alcohol, much less use pot, including most of my friends.

To be sure, a decent number of the kids in the dorm tried to prove that they were not geeks by going on drinking binges, etc.

So, I think the conclusion is that the kid not only has to be a geek, but has to be pleased with himself for being a geek. I and most of my friends were indeed rather pleased with ourselves for being geeks.

However, as you say, most parents would be horrified at having their kids be “nerds” or “geeks.” I brought this up with my extended family in a recent trip back to the Midwest. My dear old mom couldn’t even admit that *I* was a nerd/geek, pretty funny since I am certain that none of my cousins, former classmates, etc. ever had any doubt about that fact at all! Incidentally, I have always gotten along fine with all of those cousins and most of my high-school classmates, including the three co-captains of our high-school football team: nerds do not have to be hated. But I was certainly never invited to a drinking party or pot party!

Dave Miller in Sacramento

P.S. I strongly recommend that every parent read David Anderegg’s wonderful book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them.

Grace said...

If by "geek" you mean an intelligent kid with an "eccentric devotion to a particular interest", I disagree that they are immune from participation in the drug subculture. Just my observation . . .

lgm said...

The big sorter seems to be who has a plan for their future, and who is committed to having a strong healthy life. Pot is a no-brainer after watching classmates from 6th-10th grade ..first it's cool to rebel, then the health issues surface...as my son says "who wants to kiss a girl with yellow teeth and bad breath who gets off the bus so stoned that she doesn't know where she is or who she's with?" Being out-of-your-mind is obviously not a good thing for a young person's personal safety in a large high school as observers can easily see that many will take advantage.

Bonnie said...

No, I mean geek. And the poster from Caltech added an important caveat : "pleased with being a geek". Yes, lots of intelligent kids with devotions to eccentric interests end up in druggy subcultures - I should know :-). I am looking at "geek" as a particular subculture. It is one of the few subcultures that is fairly immune to alcohol and drugs, the other subcultures being immigrant Hindus and Muslims. I don't even think evangelicals are immune - when in high school in the Bible Belt, I saw an awful lot of them out at the illicit keg parties.

Allison said...

There were enormous numbers of geeks who were pleased with geekness and who did drugs at MIT. Most of them weren't pleased with MIT. Some weren't pleased with themselves, but the geek part wasn't the issue.

There were geeks who were drowning themselves in alcohol from Thursday on after finishing digital lab. There were geeks who preferred the touchy feely world of pot and MDMA. There were tons of geeks who were dropping acid every 4 day weekend (once a month) if not more. Then there were the chem geeks making their own synthetic hallucinogens, like 2CB and the rest of the weird stuff. Then there were the unhappy geeks who were doing coke and heroin.

MIT has particular problems that lead kids to be miserable. Misery, nihilism, and boredom lead kids to drugs. But over and over, the executive function and self control needed to push oneself at MIT Monday-Thursday was what led to the utter lack of willpower left to avoid such behaviors on the "weekends".

Crimson Wife said...

Hmm, I went to Stanford and disagree with the assertion that "nerds" don't drink or do drugs. Most of the kids I knew at Stanford were proud to be "work hard/play hard" types. I had one friend who did keg stands the night before her biology final and showed up completely wasted to the test. She was Phi Beta Kappa to boot.

Pot was never my substance of choice because it seemed to have negative effects on motivation and general brain functioning even when the user wasn't smoking it. That was not appealing to someone as ambitious as I was at the time.

I wasn't miserable at college, but it was very stressful and alcohol was the stress reliever of choice among probably 90% of my classmates.

C T said...

Don't forget the Mormons, along with the geeks and immigrant Hindus and Muslims. I went to BYU for seven years and never saw a whiff of substance abuse (unless you count ice cream ;) ).

Bonnie said...

Not all MIT students are geeks - not even most, in fact. I lived in a dorm right next to an MIT frat house. Those guys were not geeks. They were hardcore partiers. One winter night, I looked out my window and saw a whole pack of stark naked, totally sloshed, MIT fratboys run out of the building and into Kenmore Square, in the snow.

I also hung out with some MIT kids who were truly geeky. They were into SCA. None of them drank or did drugs, which was quite radical for 1981.

Crimson Wife said...

LOL, Bonnie! DH says that the members of the MIT chapter of his fraternity he has met are *NUTS*. Apparently, it's the athlete frat at MIT. The school may be Div. III but the athletes still party like the big boys.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote:
>There were enormous numbers of geeks who were pleased with geekness and who did drugs at MIT. Most of them weren't pleased with MIT. Some weren't pleased with themselves, but the geek part wasn't the issue.

Well… perhaps the “not pleased” part is the point. As I said, all of my friends at Caltech who did not drink or do drugs were fairly pleased with themselves.

Allison also wrote:
>MIT has particular problems that lead kids to be miserable. Misery, nihilism, and boredom lead kids to drugs.

We averaged one suicide a year at Caltech, out of a total undergrad population of only about eight hundred. So, the environment was certainly stressful. In fact, at least when I was there, Caltech was academically much more selective than MIT (as measured by SAT scores), simply because Caltech was so much smaller and therefore could be more selective.

Crimson Wife wrote:
>Hmm, I went to Stanford and disagree with the assertion that "nerds" don't drink or do drugs. Most of the kids I knew at Stanford were proud to be "work hard/play hard" types.

Not geeks or nerds by Caltech standards, I fear! I did my Ph.D. at Stanford at the same time my brother was a Stanford undergrad, so I did have a real chance to observe the Stanford undergrads up-close and personal – I remember my reaction when I first came on campus: where did they find all these disgustingly non-nerdy kids? I can only recall two Stanford undergrads I knew who even came anywhere close to Caltech standards of nerdiness/geekiness – one was Jim Pinkerton, now an analyst for FoxNews, the other a girl who went on to become an M.D./Ph.D.

Bonnie wrote:
>Not all MIT students are geeks - not even most, in fact. I lived in a dorm right next to an MIT frat house. Those guys were not geeks. They were hardcore partiers. One winter night, I looked out my window and saw a whole pack of stark naked, totally sloshed, MIT fratboys run out of the building and into Kenmore Square, in the snow.

Yeah, as I said in my earlier post, the same was true at Caltech: there were binge drinkers, though I was not friends with any of them. However, the fact that about half our dorm did not drink at all (these were generally atheists, by the way, so religious reasons were not the cause) was, I think, a difference from most schools.

Incidentally, the nerdiest of our students were the math majors: I did not know of any undergrad math majors at all who were binge drinkers or pot users.

Dave

Allison said...

I was a math major. Off the top of my head, I can think of two dozen math majors who took hallucinogens several times a year. Most of that cohort took MDMA. At least a dozen I can think of took other amphetamines. All of them tried nitrous oxide. Most had tried cocaine. And the two most prominent heroin junkies on campus were both math majors.

Again, I didn't know but a couple happy people at MIT; MIT is a weird place, filled with self loathing. The unofficial motto is IHTFP-- "I hate this *** place"; a joke club on campus (whose name fits the convention of most groups on campus, ending in "AMIT" for "at MIT") is "SPAMIT--Stupid People at MIT." Unfortunately, MIT cultivated this distorted view where being unhappy was a badge of perverse pride-- people fed their egos by being unhappy, sleeping too little, working too hard, taking punishing courses, etc.

The set of happy people at MIT may not have been vanishingly small, but there's precious little overlap between the happy and not happy there. So while everyone there had to blow off steam, unhappy people blew off steam in a different variety of self destructive ways.

My main point, though, is the group effect. If you're a geek whose subculture-peer group overwhelmingly wasn't into drugs or drinking, than with high probability, you didn't either. But if you were a geek whose peer group did, then with high probability, you did too. The problem is that in college, which group you end up in is largely a matter of luck. That is, it's a matter of small random interactions and events you can neither foresee nor control, and those are enough to have great influence on who your peer group will be, particularly in an insular place like MIT. Which dorm you ended up assigned to, who your first roommate was, who sat next to you in a lecture--these small variations determine peer group in college more of the time than a "i'm going to choose to associate with XXXX..." kind of effect.

I do wonder, though, to what extent the rise of prescribed psychoactives in children has contributed to this attitude about psychoactives in college. If you or people near you have been given ritalin or prozac or wellbutrin or dextroamphetamine for years, how much more likely does that make it for you to be willing to take other things like MDMA or LSD? The bulk of the nerds 20 years ago were just as Aspergery as now, but they weren't on meds for it; now many are. That might change their drug use preferences.

ChemProf said...

I'm with Allison -- there are plenty of geeks who use pot or other drugs. The geekiest guy I knew at Harvey Mudd College (and trust me, that's quite a guy!) got into hallucinogenics his senior year, and still uses. Peer group has a lot to do with it, but even the East Dorm crowd (who were proud to be the nerdiest of the nerdy) were quite familiar with alcohol. They tended toward fancy cocktails rather than the cheap beer favored by North and West, but there were definitely those who regularly got drunk.

Heck, a few years before I was there, a Mudder was making meth in his dorm room. A chemistry major of course!

The big thing I saw was that geeks were more accepting of those who didn't drink -- if you told someone "no thanks, I don't drink" they rarely brought it up again.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
> I was a math major. Off the top of my head, I can think of two dozen math majors who took hallucinogens several times a year. Most of that cohort took MDMA. At least a dozen I can think of took other amphetamines. All of them tried nitrous oxide. Most had tried cocaine. And the two most prominent heroin junkies on campus were both math majors.

Hi, Allison! Hope you are doing well.

You’re nearly two decades younger than I am (although drugs were certainly freely available on campus when I was in college). So, I don’t know if the differences you and I observed are due to the two decade separation, to differences between MIT and Caltech, or just to a statistical fluctuation.

Allison also wrote:
> Again, I didn't know but a couple happy people at MIT; MIT is a weird place, filled with self loathing. The unofficial motto is IHTFP-- "I hate this *** place"; a joke club on campus (whose name fits the convention of most groups on campus, ending in "AMIT" for "at MIT") is "SPAMIT--Stupid People at MIT." Unfortunately, MIT cultivated this distorted view where being unhappy was a badge of perverse pride-- people fed their egos by being unhappy, sleeping too little, working too hard, taking punishing courses, etc.

Well, Caltech prides itself on being inhumanly difficult, too: as far as I can tell, the two schools are much alike, except that MIT is bigger (and colder in the winter!). However, we did not pride ourselves on being unhappy, though a lot of the students were. I, and the majority of my friends, were in fact pretty happy: I actually found Caltech more relaxing than high school – no need to BS, just write down the right answer and you got 100 %. Easy.

So, maybe there is a cultural difference. Or maybe it’s the Southern California weather!

Allison also wrote:
> My main point, though, is the group effect. If you're a geek whose subculture-peer group overwhelmingly wasn't into drugs or drinking, than with high probability, you didn't either. But if you were a geek whose peer group did, then with high probability, you did too.

I think that is true.

Allison also said:
> The problem is that in college, which group you end up in is largely a matter of luck. That is, it's a matter of small random interactions and events you can neither foresee nor control, and those are enough to have great influence on who your peer group will be…

I’m not sure that is true. At least in my case, my attitude always was “If I deign to include you in my peer group, you had better live up to my standards, or at least accept that I will not lower my standards because of any pressure from you.” It has always worked: I always had as many friends as I wanted to have.

I guess that, to me, the sign of being a true geek/nerd is that you care more about learning things than about socializing and that you really do not much care about peer pressure at all.

Dave Anderegg says as much in the book I mentioned earlier.

I suppose that if the bullying got severe enough, it might be hard to ignore, but I was always a big kid, pretty sure of myself, so I could always deal with that.

So, I suppose I might amend Bonnie’s earlier point to say that the way to avoid the drug culture is to raise kids who are so sure of their superiority to anyone who would use drugs that they could not imagine paying attention to such people. But, to me, that is pretty much the definition of a true geek or nerd anyway, as opposed to all those poor souls who merely achieve a pale simulation of nerdiness.

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

ChemProf wrote:
>Heck, a few years before I was there, a Mudder was making meth in his dorm room. A chemistry major of course!

Yeah, and of course I knew a chem major who synthesized LSD.

CP also wrote:
>even the East Dorm crowd (who were proud to be the nerdiest of the nerdy) were quite familiar with alcohol.

Consuming alcohol is the socially accepted norm in American, so, yes, lots of nerds/geeks do drink. The interesting thing, at least when I was at Caltech, was that a substantial number of them did not drink: we were violating social norms, we knew it, and we didn’t care (we were a bit proud, truth be known: it increased our geekiness quotient). Which, going back to Bonnie’s point and Anderegg’s book, is the main point: nerds/geeks tend to be people who are willing to walk away from peer pressure – after all, our society has a *very* strong norm against being a nerd/geek.

Of course, there are a fair number of nerds/geeks who do not want to be nerds/geeks, the poor lost souls who would like to be “normal” but somehow cannot be.

And, then there were those of us who exulted in our geekiness, who sort of viewed ourselves as “homo superior” to steal the phrase from “The X-Men.”

I think Bonnie is right that it is easier for us exultant geeks to turn our back on the drug-alcohol culture: we, after all, pride ourselves on ignoring peer pressure.

Practice ignoring peer pressure for enough years, and you get pretty good at it!

Alas, from what Allison says, there are not too many exultant geeks at MIT.

Dave

Em said...

I have to say, Allison's assessment of MIT culture differs from my experience 10-15 years ago--certainly there were people using drugs some places, and there was drinking, but I didn't notice any particular level of unhappiness. Then again, I was on the crew team, and both men and women alumni from different decades often mentioned that they had a much nicer experience than people who weren't rowers. I don't know if this means I wasn't a geek--several of my teammates majored in aero-astro engineering, so it wasn't that they were taking the easy way out. I suppose it depends where one lives and what one does with one's time while there--I was also involved in multiple music groups, and worked for the same researcher all four years. (And, like I said, there definitely was some drinking, and I knew of drug use, though I avoided being present for anything other than alcohol.)

Anonymous said...

Dave,

From your description one could just as easily conclude that geeks do *NOT* ignore peer pressure, they just define their peer group differently.

-Mark Roulo

PhysicistDave said...

Mark wrote to me:
>From your description one could just as easily conclude that geeks do *NOT* ignore peer pressure, they just define their peer group differently.

Nope.

I, and my friends, did not drink or do drugs before we got to college. We didn’t do it in college, either.

Not peer pressure, just continuing to be ourselves.

I think most Americans, and most people on this thread, are so willing to bend to peer pressure that it is hard to imagine that some people will not. I just don’t, never have. Really used to bug my mom: “Why can’t you just be like the other kids?” To which I would reply, truthfully, because the other kids are stupid.

I have been in peer groups at various times of my life where most people did drink – I think this may even have been true of my high school peer group, though I did not try to keep a systematic record of who drank and who didn’t. I didn’t care.

Peer pressure just does not impress me as it does most Americans.

Again: read Anderegg’s book – this seems to be a common feature of nerds, and he has more experience actually studying nerds than I do. Of course, Anderegg and I seem to have slightly more demanding standards as to who is actually entitled to be called a nerd than some people here do!

Dave

Allison said...

I think I'm trying to describe peer pressure differently than it is commonly understood to be.

First, "we were a bit proud, truth be known: it increased our geekiness quotient)" isn't exactly ignoring peer pressure. It's actively contrarian on purpose, and often, for no reason EXCEPT to be contrary. Not exactly the same as not "caring" about social norms. It is true that geeks don't *respect* common social norms--but that's not "don't care". They respect a different set of values, like the what they see as innovative or original, and they disrespect those who they don't see as creating such innovation. This is why having them in a workplace is so frustrating, because they don't respect the sales force, they don't respect the manager, and they don't respect the customer. They only respect other geeks.

Nearly all of the people at MIT thought they were superior to other folks--whether they were the LSD taking folks who were superior to those beer swilling frat boys or they were the beer swilling frat boys who were superior to acidheads. Egotism was their main character trait no matter which behaviors they had. Don't pretend it was so highly moral--it was just as cliqueish and derogatory toward the outgroup no matter which group they were in.

But there was little active peer pressure--no "you're unwanted if you don't do X" or even "come on, really, why don't you try it". I'd say as a general rule, the geeks were simply uninterested in drugs and alcohol, rather than opposed...if enough reasonss came up to cause interest, there wasn't really any reason not to, then.

The peer group influence I'm talking about is more subtle than that. It's really an adjustment of the brain's prior probabilities for various behaviors. It's about what the brain thinks of as normal, and it's really really a huge effect on us as humans, though we tend not to notice it because we're too busy acclimating to whatever our environment is.

I'm sure many folks at Caltech had bizarre sleep-wake cycles. Being night shifted was probably quite common. After a while of being night shifted, if you are around others who are also so, you can forget how WEIRD this behavior is--enough that you think it's weird that restaurants aren't open when you want them to be, or you're plain flabbergasted at how many people are waking up at 6 AM to go to work. If after a while everyone you know swears, you may forget that swearing is not appropriate behavior in normal interactions. Same with not sleeping, or same with spending money, or any other human interaction activity. The drinking and drug use is the same, too. If you are around such behavior repeatedly and consistently, then such behavior appears normal. And normal behaviors are behaviors we participate in. We may then spend enormous numbers of cycles justifying or rationalizing our behaviors, but our choices didn't come from our intellect first--we kid ourselves when we believe that.

PhysicistDave said...

Mark,

By the way, have you read Judith Rich Harris” The Nurture Assumption? She spends a good part of the book explaining how overpowering peer-group pressure is on American kids. But, at one point, she mentions in passing that this does not seem to be true of East Asian kids, for some reason (vide Amy Chua).

Or there is the classic book by David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: Riesman explores in detail how Americans became an “other-directed” society in the early twentieth century, people who lacked the ability to avoid caving to peer pressure.

Or read Grace Palladino’s Teenagers about the invention of teenager-hood, with the accompanying peer pressure, in the mid-twentieth century: Palladino attributes this, correctly I think, to the spread of the “comprehensive high school” which all kids were expected to attend and which intentionally tried to homogenize America’s youth.

Or there is Kliebard’s classic The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893 – 1958.”

And, of course, read Anderegg.

I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. The truth is out there, but few American parents want to here it:

The overwhelming power of peer pressure is not a human universal. It is a contingent fact of our own contemporary culture. I think Palladino is right that it is due to the anthill institution of the comprehensive high school, combined with the obvious abdication of parental responsibility.

But, of course, all contemporary American parents (aside from a few immigrant families – again, vide Amy Chua) were raised in this culture themselves. And, so, to not let their children be engulfed by that culture is frightening to them: after all, their children will then not “fit in,” the most horrifying of fates.

A handful of people, like me, seem to have been born with an innate repulsion towards that culture, and so we do not feel peer pressure.

But, most American parents having been raised in this culture themselves, really do not want their children to fail to “fit in.”

Be careful what you wish for.

Dave

Crimson Wife said...

I did not drink at all in high school but drank way too much (and too much in one sitting) in college. I probably would have partied in high school except for the fact that my parents were very strict and I didn't like lying to them or sneaking around. In college, I had nobody enforcing a curfew or who cared if I stumbled into my room wasted or hung over.

I didn't stop the binge-drinking on weekends until I was 25 and got pregnant with my oldest. After she was born, I realized that I had to stop at just one drink because I needed to be sober in the event of an emergency with her. I now probably consume as much total alcohol in a year as I used to in a couple of weekends during college.

I think people pick their peer groups in college. My school had Rush in the spring, and I was a heavy drinker even before I joined. My DH didn't actually pledge his frat until his sophomore year, but was a heavy drinker even before then (he actually joined because most of his friends had pledged the year before and he was at their parties so much they persuaded him to become an official brother).

Allison said...

Dave, all of the evidence you cite is consistent with a much simpler theory: Americans now spend most of their time around peers.

If you are around one group, your behavior norms to that group. It's not about losing the ability to "not cave to peer pressure"; it's about being predominantly only around peers in the first place.

Modern high schools create adolescence by stuffing kids altogether with nearly no other different-age or different-status people to socialize with. American children seldom experience multigenerational families under one roof. Even our adults now largely only spend time with their peers, with almost no one spending time with anyone +-2 generations from them, few attending social institutions where people of different wealth mix, and almost no one now lives in a neighborhood where neighbors' educational attainment is diverse.

Other cultures, like Asian ones, don't allow children to have only peers as their main social agents, so they don't have peer culture as the dominant culture. They don't have their adults socialize only in-group either. Social obligations tie you across these boundaries. In those cases, there is still much pressure to conform to expectations, but those expectations aren't coming from peers.

Yes, this American effect of peer pressure is a contingent fact--contingent on our creating big groups of peers! the pressure part IS part of human nature, but in other times and societies, people, including those between ages 10-20something were expected to socialize in various contexts with people who were not their equals, but were their social betters in status, wealth, family, age, sex, etc.

It's a system-bath phenomenon. You wouldn't say the system has lost its ability to not cave to reaching equilibrium with the bath, because there's no sentience to the laws of thermo. Our behavior norms to the bath we're in. It was unforeseen and unintentional that we created the specific baths we've got in high school and college that allow young people to be left amongst themselves almost entirely. it's much to our detriment. But it doesn't require an lack of moral fiber at the individual level.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
>First, "we were a bit proud, truth be known: it increased our geekiness quotient)" isn't exactly ignoring peer pressure. It's actively contrarian on purpose, and often, for no reason EXCEPT to be contrary. Not exactly the same as not "caring" about social norms.

Well, yeah, it really was “exactly ignoring peer pressure.” As I said in my reply to Mark, a number of the kids in my peer group in high school did drink. I just did not care. It happened that most of the kids in my college peer group did not drink: since I thought drinking was not a great idea, I thought that was nice, but, again, it did not affect my behavior. One of my friends in college (only one!) did try pot, once (he didn’t like it). It did not affect the rest of us one way or another. We figured everyone had to decide these things for himself.

Of course, like everyone, I do tend to choose as friends people who share some common interests or values with me, but, of course, no one shares all of my values. And, when their values differ from mine, if the difference is of huge importance to one of us, we stop being friends. Otherwise, we agree to disagree. But, it just does not occur to me that I should alter my values or behavior to imitate theirs, nor do I see why they should try to imitate mine.

That sort of altering of one’s own values in imitation of others’ behaviors or values is what is usually meant be “peer pressure,” and I seem to be immune to it ever since I was a young child.

I have always had this insensitivity to peer pressure on everything from significant issues such as drugs and drinking to rather trivial issues such as clothes styles and tastes in music. I had little interest in “my generation’s” music, for example. Incidentally, for everyone here who did not live through the ‘60s, don’t let the “Golden Oldies” stations and CDs fool you – most ‘60s music was abysmally bad and has happily disappeared. I could never understand why most of my age-group listened to such dreck, dreck that no one any longer remembers.

If by “peer pressure” you mean that I of course had some common attitudes and interests with my friends, well, sure, just as you and I have some common attitudes and interests. But, the phrase “peer pressure” usually means altering your tastes or values to “fit in” with your peers. Happily, I have not altered my tastes and values to fit in with you nor you with me.

And, that’s how I behaved when I was a kid, too. Why most kids behaved differently was, frankly, a mystery to me back then. I think I may understand it a bit better now, but the American insistence on the prime importance of “fitting in” still strikes me as bizarre, just as it did forty or fifty years ago.

Perhaps most humans have a greater innate propensity towards conformity than I do. But, contemporary American attitudes, specifically the attitudes parents convey to their kids, seem to encourage that propensity to a level that did not exist in previous periods in American history, or in some other cultures, as the books I cited above seem to indicate.

All the best,

Dave

Anonymous said...

Allison is right. Our culture is unusual in the degree to which teens can spend the vast majority of their time (when they're not asleep) with each other. And it's now each other that they're with, even when they're under their parents' roofs, because of cell phones and internet.

They certainly don't need this level of togetherness. For many, it's harmful. I hope the parents of the future can figure out a way to undo this. Am not hopeful, since most of them partake in the same dynamic, or did a few years ago when they were teens themselves.

Bonnie said...

"By the way, have you read Judith Rich Harris” The Nurture Assumption? She spends a good part of the book explaining how overpowering peer-group pressure is on American kids. But, at one point, she mentions in passing that this does not seem to be true of East Asian kids, for some reason (vide Amy Chua).
"
I totally disagree with this assertion that East Asian kids are not susceptible to peer pressure. That is simply wrong. In fact, Japan has a serious problem in its schools with bullying. Any kid who does things even slightly different from the norm is a target. The saying is "The nail that sticks up must get pounded down".

We spend a fair amount of time with Chinese families at Chinese school. Chinese school is a family affair. The kids are definitely part of a peer group - other Chinese-American kids. I think Caucasian-Americans do not see the degree to which Asian-American kids are socializing with each other rather than with the dominant Caucasian peer group.

palisadesk said...

Our culture is unusual in the degree to which teens can spend the vast majority of their time (when they're not asleep) with each other.

For more on this, and related topics that make U.S. adolescents more at risk for por school performance, see an excellent book by Laurence Sternberg, Beyond the Classroom:Why School Reform Has Failed, And What Parents Can Do.

N Y Times article:
here.

It was written in the late 90's but still is a very thought-provoking and nuanced treatment of the topic.

It's not all bad news; the author has some good ideas for parents.

Allison said...

--But, it just does not occur to me that I should alter my values or behavior to imitate theirs, nor do I see why they should try to imitate mine.

It doesn't occur to most other people either, Dave. That just isn't what people set out to do if they have nonpathological psychologies.

In what sense is it even the case that a 16 yr old has values or preferences that are *theirs*? Where did their values come from? Sui generis? No. Our brains have reward mechanisms that get reinforced and cultivated. If we feel good when with person X, we begin to feel good participating in things with them. If we feel good the first time we do behavior X, we repeat it. If we grow up in a culture that values X, we value X. And if we feel bad in certain circumstances even if those are not causative, we avoid those circumstances.

Where did the likes of a teen or young adult come from at this age? Almost no teen has experienced enough of the world to say what they don't like, and most don't know the motives for the values they've got. So the idea that they are actively changing it for someone else is hogwash--they are still finding out what they are going to choose to call "me, my preferences and values". They are still taking in data, and they can only do that from the set of things they have available to this.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote:
>Where did the likes of a teen or young adult come from at this age? Almost no teen has experienced enough of the world to say what they don't like, and most don't know the motives for the values they've got. So the idea that they are actively changing it for someone else is hogwash--they are still finding out what they are going to choose to call "me, my preferences and values". They are still taking in data, and they can only do that from the set of things they have available to this.

Well, obviously! Of course I was not and could not be a fan of Chinese opera when I was fifteen, since I had no way of hearing Chinese opera when I was fifteen!

On the other hand, like most American kids, by the time I was fifteen, I had heard acid rock, folk rock, teeny-bopper rock, swing music, Broadway show tunes, classical music, ragtime, etc.

Usually, the term “peer pressure” means not simply that people have to choose among the menu of choices offered by their culture, but rather that they choose the specific choices enforced by their peer group. In my case, being a child of the ‘60s, that means my favorite music would have been rock.

It wasn’t. That is really the only point I am trying to make on this issue: while it does seem that most American kids conform to the pressures of their peer group, there are a significant minority of us who do not. Whether it was clothes style, hair style, taste in music, use of drugs or alcohol, or whatever, I just did not care what my peers were doing, even my close friends. I thought about what made sense to me, or what I happened to like personally independent of what others liked, and that was it.

I do seem to be fairly unusual in that respect, but I am certainly not unique. Some people really are much, much less susceptible to peer pressure than most Americans seem to be.

There just is variability among human beings on this trait as on most other traits.
(cont.)

PhysicistDave said...

(cont.)
Allison also wrote:
>Modern high schools create adolescence by stuffing kids altogether with nearly no other different-age or different-status people to socialize with. American children seldom experience multigenerational families under one roof.
[snip]
>Other cultures, like Asian ones, don't allow children to have only peers as their main social agents, so they don't have peer culture as the dominant culture.

Anonymous chimed in:
>Allison is right. Our culture is unusual in the degree to which teens can spend the vast majority of their time (when they're not asleep) with each other. And it's now each other that they're with, even when they're under their parents' roofs, because of cell phones and internet.

Exactly right, Allison and Anon.

That is just the point that all the books I cited earlier in the thread make.

That is the central point, and it looks to me as if we are all in agreement on this.

We have created a Lord of the Flies situation in our society in which kids feed on each others’ immaturity without being guided by more mature perspectives.

lgm wrote:
>The big sorter seems to be who has a plan for their future, and who is committed to having a strong healthy life..

In fact, one of the points Anderegg makes in Nerds is that kids who try to take an adult perspective, who try to “plan for their future” are generally labeled “nerds.”

The problem is, given that most children are indeed highly susceptible to peer pressure, how do we avoid drenching our kids in the toxic pop/youth culture, without simply locking them in a room for eighteen years?? In our case, we are doing it by homeschooling – our kids have friends (generally not other homeschooled kids, incidentally), they go to dance class and socialize, they’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies, and “Avatar,” and even “X-Men First Class.” They are not utterly ignorant of pop/youth culture but they are also not totally immersed in it: they admire both Prokofiev and Leona Lewis (for her performance of the “Avatar” theme song).

So, I think the circle can be squared, but it takes some conscious effort.

Allison, I think you and I are really pretty much on the same page here, aren’t we?

All the best,

Dave

Catherine Johnson said...

Sorry - haven't read the thread yet - but wanted to respond to Allison's observation:

or even just keep my mouth shut about (possible) former bad behavior.

This is a point most parents really don't get. If you laughingly tell your children about your own exploits, it will normalize them for your children.


I would automatically agree with this -- BUT, surprisingly, at least in my circles it's not the case. Everyone I know has a clear understanding that Daddy & Mommy's exploits as teens & young adults are not to be shared with the children. (I didn't have a lot of exploits, btw. But I did have **some.**)

I have no idea what the reality is....just adding that observation. As I say, I would have thought that parents today are more open than we should be, but in my own circles I don't see it....

ChemProf said...

This reminds me -- I got to hear about all of my father's exploits once I got married. In a month, I had a whole different view of him, and of Berkeley in the 50's (when the cops would take a 14 year old kid home with the beer he'd had in the car he'd been driving, and just give the beer to the kid's father, apparently -- I should point out that they apparently raised the driving age to 16 from 14 around that time, and the kids who got skipped felt it was unfair. This was also when you could buy a model A for cheap, then drive it around in the Berkeley Hills).

PhysicistDave said...

Bonnie wrote:
>We spend a fair amount of time with Chinese families at Chinese school. Chinese school is a family affair. The kids are definitely part of a peer group - other Chinese-American kids. I think Caucasian-Americans do not see the degree to which Asian-American kids are socializing with each other rather than with the dominant Caucasian peer group.

Bonnie, it seems to me that the most relevant point here (and Judith Rich Harris says as much in The Nurture Assumption) is “Chinese school is a family affair.”

I married in to a Chinese immigrant family: I first met my in-laws thirty-seven years ago, and have been observing the extended family with a certain anthropological interest ever since.

Neither my mother-in-law nor the other moms in the extended family were “Tiger Mothers” a la Amy Chua. My wife and her sister had overwhelmingly Caucasian friends growing up (they lived in a neighborhood without that many Asians).

And, yet, my wife and sister-in-law, and most of their cousins, clearly exhibit a lot of stereotypical Chinese cultural traits in terms of family vs. peer-group influence.

It’s been difficult to figure out how this is passed on to the kids: there do not seem to be lots of parental lectures about the importance of academics vs. socializing, for example. The kids in my wife’s extended family seemed to assume that they had better be top students, but, on the surface, there did not seem much direct parental pressure demanding this.

Perhaps, part of it is simply that the parents in her extended family simply did not emphasize issues of popularity, socializing, etc. My own parents were actually worried that I spent my Saturday evenings at home reading instead of out partying (I had to explain to them that all of my friends were also at home reading, so there was no one to party with). Unlike my own parents, you do not often hear about Chinese parents worrying that their kids are spending too much time studying and not enough time partying! Similarly, American parents convey in many subtle – and not-so-subtle! – ways that there is something wrong with being a nerd/geek (Anderegg discusses this in some detail). Again, you do not usually see much of this among Chinese.

I think we under-estimate how much of American kids’ anti-academic attitudes really are passed on to them, wittingly or unwittingly, by their parents.

The other thing I have noticed is that in passing on stories of deceased relatives, friends, etc., my wife’s family has tended to focus on academic accomplishments. My own family has stories about a great-great grandfather’s experiences in the Civil War, a great-grandfather (old “Wild Bill”) who got himself into all sorts of amusing troubles, etc. My wife’s family has stories about the ancestor who was the chief scholar in China, a grandfather who retired to become a Buddhist scholar, etc.

Again, not an explicit demand that kids excel academically, just a sort of climate of expectations.

Incidentally, I am not holding up Chinese child-rearing as ideal. I think Chinese parents in general are far too sparing in praise when the kids really have worked hard and truly accomplished something. I think Chinese have a tendency to assume that you are not accomplishing something unless you are suffering (hard work and effort do not really always have to be painful!). And, I think Chinese have a tendency to assume that kids cannot be self-motivated but only motivated by external demands – although, in fairness to my parents-in-law, this was not true of them at all: while their children have been very accomplished educationally and professionally, I never saw any signs of Amy-Chua-type behavior at all.

So… the Chinese difference is complicated: it is not just manic “Tiger Mother” behavior. But, based on my wife’s extended family (and what I have seen of our other Chinese friends confirms this), it is also not just making sure that the kids’ peer group is largely Chinese.

Dave

lgm said...

>>In fact, one of the points Anderegg makes in Nerds is that kids who try to take an adult perspective, who try to “plan for their future” are generally labeled “nerds.

The population here must be different. Peer admiration goes to those who have developed their own passions and are working toward their own goals . Nerds are looked down on, as they are generally students whose parental influence put them in honors and they must study mightily to stay in - they are perceived as not too smart, and under heavy parental control which is forcing them to study and develop their resume. In general, they have no sense of self and haven't developed a passion of their own.

PhysicistDave said...

lgm wrote:
>Nerds are looked down on, as they are generally students whose parental influence put them in honors and they must study mightily to stay in - they are perceived as not too smart, and under heavy parental control which is forcing them to study and develop their resume.

To some degree, the differences we are all relating here are no doubt due to our different ages, geographical locations, etc. – things are just different at different places and in different times.

I will say there was not a single “nerd” in my high school, and few if any at Caltech when I was a student, who fit your description. As I said, I was a bit of a rebel in being a nerd: My parents wanted and expected me to be a party animal like “normal” kids. And, this is still the case among my family back in the Midwest and my kids’ peers out here in Sacramento: the nerds tend to be the kids who choose to value learning above socializing, usually to their parents’ surprise, and sometimes their parents’ dismay.

Perhaps others live in different social milieux in which parents and kids behave differently.

Part of our difference may be a difference in our definitions of “intelligent,” “good student,” “nerd,” etc. I do not consider an “A” student in contemporary American to necessarily be intelligent, a good student, or a nerd. Unless a kid can do far beyond what is merely “A” work, I would not even consider her intelligent, much less a nerd.

lgm also wrote:
>In general, they have no sense of self and haven't developed a passion of their own.

Well, the definition of “nerd” I am familiar with (and Anderegg, whose knowledge is wider than mine, agrees) would include a high level of self-motivation, indeed verging on being obsessive-compulsive. “Sense of self” is, I suppose, ambiguous: I know a college girl whose parents would say she has a strong “sense of self” because she dresses stylishly (i.e. like her peers, rather than like her parents) -- her dad has said as much to me. To me, she lacks a “sense of self” because she is just conforming to her peers. Just a semantic issue, I suppose.

Dave

lgm said...

That would be a 'grind' in my era..the Hermoine Granger crowd - intelligent & a bit o-c about getting the very high grade (rather than settling for a 95 w/o studying )and see how the academics support their passion and goals in life. Parents are supportive but not directing.

Grinds don't exist here as the high school doesn't have the class offerings to support them. They would either move or find a private school known for academics or both.

Anonymous said...

To yank this discussion back to the original topic of parenting contemporary middle school and high school students:

I am commenting anonymously here because what I am about to say concerns my oldest step-child.

My biggest regret, 18 years ago (when he was 15), is that we did not take his marijuana use seriously enough. Oh, we would threaten and ground...and not follow through enough.

I wish we had had the spine to administer random drug tests from the time we realized he was using until he turned 18. We might have saved him from years of struggle.

He dropped out of college and drifted from low-end job to low-end job, always using, always being just enough enabled by one parent or another to eke by. His primary drug was marijuana, seconded by alcohol.

Finally in 2004 he asked to go to rehab, which he did. Yes, it worked, but he was in residential treatment for 60 days and a supervised out-patient program for another 60 days (which his generous grandmother funded in place of his college tuition).

He's been clean, sober and productive since. He's graduated from college, has found his calling, gotten married and has a small child.

But if only....

What he said at the time of his in-patient stay (and has since) is that as much as he hated the random drug testing at the time, it helped him say no to his friends pressuring him to use. He had us (the ebil parents administering the tests) to "blame" for his change in behavior.

When we slacked off on the drug tests, he started using again -- not so much because he wanted to, but there was nothing to block the whim or urge.

So that's my rant.

PhysicistDave said...

lgm wrote:
>That would be a 'grind' in my era..the Hermoine Granger crowd - intelligent & a bit o-c about getting the very high grade (rather than settling for a 95 w/o studying )and see how the academics support their passion and goals in life.

No, you misunderstood me. I was not talking about “getting the very high grade”; I was talking about learning. There is only a loose correlation between getting a good grade and actually learning something: looser today, it seems (with, e.g., “group projects”) than in my schooldays. Of course, if someone has learned enough, then getting a high grade may be almost automatic with a sane teacher.

But, no, “nerd” and similar words does not mean to me someone who simply gets high grades. It means someone who cares more about learning than about partying. I think that does pretty much describe the denotation of the term as it is commonly used, although, of course, most Americans, especially American adults, add a highly negative connotation.

I do know a number of kids who attach a positive connotation to the word “nerd” (I just met and talked with such a kid this afternoon), and Anderegg also discusses kids who attach a positive connotation to the word. But Anderegg and I seem to be among the very few adults who do so.

Anderegg and I both think that if more adults had the guts to say “Nerds are good!” that would help fight the anti-learning culture in this country. But the truth is that most American adults really do think there is something wrong with kids who value learning over partying and do not want their kids to behave in that way.

One reason my kids are learning Mandarin.

lgm said...

I must have local variance. Geek is + here: kid is viewed as having a mind that can think plus knowledge. Nerd is - here: kid is walking encycopedia but can't do anything with it but spout; social skills lacking. Labels don't matter though..the culture here is that successful high school students are admired by peers, which is a total flip from middle school.

PhysicistDave said...

lgm wrote:
> I must have local variance. Geek is + here: kid is viewed as having a mind that can think plus knowledge. Nerd is - here: kid is walking encycopedia but can't do anything with it but spout; social skills lacking.

Yeah, there is local variance – even on a micro scale, I think. Anderegg discusses that.

But, I think you are still missing my distinction. What I call valuing learning over partying actually may be equivalent to your “kid is walking encycopedia but can't do anything with it but spout; social skills lacking.” Or maybe not.

Part of the problem is that “social skills lacking” is not exactly an objective, neutral description.

There is a young woman I know whom a mutual acquaintance considers to be grossly lacking in social skills. What that boils down to is that she does not act as he thinks most Americans act. On that he’s right: she doesn’t – she is, by any reasonable definition, a nerd. On the other hand, I get along fine with her, my kids love her, she is very successful at a well-paid job that focuses on customer interaction (in a technical field, of course), etc.

So… is she an example of, as you say, “social skills lacking” or not?

In interacting with my family, with business colleagues and customers, etc., this young woman is *much* more successful than the guy who criticizes her was at the same age.

On the other hand, she would no doubt be a flop at most cocktail parties; don’t try to talk to her about who will win the next Superbowl; and, if a group of women start talking about the best beauty salon, well, she will have very little to say.

So… “social skills lacking” or a very successful professional woman with a much higher level of success than the vast majority of “socially-skilled” Americans?

Both, perhaps: which suggests to me that “social skills lacking” is a tendentious, not honest, description.

Sometimes, the phrase “social skills lacking” may refer to someone who really cannot deal with other people in a way she will need to deal with them. And, sometimes, it is just a nasty way of saying, “You are not a worthless beer-guzzling failure like me, and I resent your evident superiority.” In my observation, more often the latter than the former.