“In school, kids are always trying to fit in with the crowd. Everyone goes through that and feels peer pressure from that. I know I did when I was growing up. I definitely wanted to hang out with the cool kids and tried to be something I’m not.” ~Joe Jonas
There is a group of kids that parents fear most. Moms and dads spend a great deal of time and energy cautioning their kids against this motley band of miscreants. It’s most commonly referred to as “the wrong crowd.” The group is usually made up of the kids who smoke the things they shouldn’t, boast about sexual conquests, bully others, or get involved in other harmful or destructive behaviors. These are the kids that you warn your children to avoid at all costs.
Now, I don’t enjoy being the bearer of bad news, but the truth is this “wrong crowd” is inescapable. I have listened to parents who believe that taking their kids out of public school, or moving to the country, or limiting social interaction will protect their family from the dangers of bad influences. But that’s just not the case. Christian schools have the “wrong crowd” as well. So do rural areas. The fact is, there will always be peers and friends who steer your children down the wrong path.
Since stopping all interaction with all negative influences is impossible, perhaps it’s time to change our strategy. As parents, how can we make sure our kids don’t assimilate into the wrong crowd? Or how can we help our teen who maybe is the wrong crowd?
Turn the Tables
I’ve spent 40 years hanging out with the wrong crowd. Every one of the twenty-eight hundred kids who have stepped through the doors of the Heartlight campus are what most people consider the “bad kids.” But frankly, while I have dealt with teens who have battled serious issues, I have yet to meet a bad kid. There is no such thing as a teenager who is beyond hope. Even those kids who make up the wrong crowd can turn their lives around with the right motivation. In fact, the teens that lead the pack are often highly charismatic, intelligent, and have great leadership skills. Unfortunately, these amazing gifts are misapplied, which leads to the “wrong crowd” mentality and destructive behaviors. Yes, troubled teens can unduly influence others, but that influence can be turned around and redeemed.
Instead of looking at the teen across the street as a perpetual troublemaker worth avoiding, view that troubled kid as a mission field. Perhaps the reason God placed you in that specific neighborhood is so that you could be an influence on that particular young man or woman. Or maybe that sketchy friend your son or daughter is hanging around with needs you to be a voice of reason and righteousness in their lives. Jesus told us that if we see one lamb has gone missing, we’re to leave the others in the pen and go after the lamb that was lost (Luke 15:1-3). God is passionately involved in going after the “lost,” and so should we. Instead of fearing and avoiding those “dangerous” kids, let’s take the opportunity to reach out to the kids who may need our help. You can flip the tables, so to speak, and begin to influence them. If your teen has friends who are part of the “wrong crowd” who are lost and looking for direction, it’s a great chance to give them the direction they are looking for.
Lead, Don’t Follow
We can also help our kids avoid the traps of falling in with the wrong crowd by teaching them to lead, and not follow. What teenagers crave more than anything is a sense of acceptance. They want to feel validated and appreciated. And when they find that in a particular group, they tend to stay in that group. Unfortunately, there may be a price to be paid for joining certain cliques or crowds. As my friend Paul Coughlin says, “cruelty is currency” in today’s youth culture. Many of the groups roaming the halls at school or hanging out at the local skate park operate on the basis of bullying. It’s a form of power that allows them to buy popularity.
Teaching our kids to stand out from the pack and stand up for others goes a long way in preventing our kids from becoming part of the wrong crowd. I have written about the dangers of bullying in other articles [Recognizing and Preventing “Mean Girls”], but there are also hazards of allowing bullying to happen. Recent studies by the American Psychology Association reveal that passive witnesses of bullying or cruelty show a sharp decrease in empathy, have higher cases of depression, and perform poorly in school.* Even if our children aren’t the tormentors, the impact of watching others being injured can still harm kids indirectly.
As parents, we can also help our children avoid following the wrong crowd by teaching the “hows” and “whys” of bad behavior. It’s not enough to say, “The Bible says don’t do that.” It’s about engaging your teenager in a conversation of why they should stand up to bullies, how drugs can damage your health and future, why pre-martial sex is not a good idea, and how the principles of the Bible are written for our good. Curiosity is a powerful drive, especially in teenagers. They are interested in (and probably questioning) everything, as they attempt to understand how the world around them works. And many times the forbidden fruit is often the sweetest—that action or behavior that other kids are doing but they aren’t allowed to participate in. But if we take the time to explain why that seemingly delicious fruit is rotten and bad, we start taking the power out of following the wrong crowd.
We can’t escape the negative influences surrounding our kids. There will always be a “wrong crowd” that will attempt to bring our teenagers down. But by being active in positively influencing those kids and coaching our teenagers to lead and not follow, we can break the power of these enticing groups and break the fear that our children will be drawn into them.
*Observing Bullying at School: The Mental Health Implications of Witness Status
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.