Thursday, April 29, 2010

Using Positive Peer Pressure to Influence Kids' Eating

Four young boys and a mom were walking down the sidewalk. Three of the boys, I'd guess, were around 10 or 11 years old. They looked like two brothers and one friend. The fourth kid, likely another brother, seemed about 6 or 7 years old. The mom was holding his hand.

Suddenly, the older boys darted ahead, galloping a few yards down the road, kicking up their heels, doing jump-spins, and squealing the way excited 10-year old boys do when their in a group.

The younger kid peered up at his mom, let go of her hand, and said something about how he was going to catch up with the older boys and play with them, too. His excitement was palpable. In that moment, I remembered how it felt to look up to my older sister and her friends and think the world of them, no matter what they were doing. Because they were older, and by definition cooler, their activities had an aura of mystique and allure. To be included meant everything.

And then the mom on the street, the stupid cow, said, "No. You stay with mommy..." and grabbed hold of his hand once more.

In an instant, the young boy was crushed, humiliated, and ashamed to be who he was. He faced crinkled with a welling of imminent tears, but he must have thought better of it. Crying would only make matters worse, only make him seem more of a baby. Maybe instead he should say something nasty back to his mother, as if rejecting and defying her would prove he is not a child anymore.

What an awful age to be, old enough to desire acceptance among your slightly older peers, but barely young enough for your mother to still baby you.

Positive Peer Pressure
Peer pressure can be subtle, especially at that age, and I think this fleeting moment in this little boy's life perfectly encapsulates that notion.

Kids, especially in the 6-13 age range, want to do anything that the older, cooler kids are doing. If you let a 7-year old boy just be around his older siblings or schoolmates and let him observe them, without the watchful eyes of parents or teachers to oppress him, he will almost always aspire to be like them by imitating their behavior and actions.

In working to improve children's eating habits, dietary knowledge, and in particular school lunch programs, the leaders of these movements have to tap into positive peer pressure. They need to remember that the people who will have the greatest influence on these kids are their slightly older peers.

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