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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

“Even if it is painful and lonely, associate with worthy companions.”

 – Dogen, the great Zen master.

We’ll call him Aaron, but the name is unimportant, since millions of kids fall into the same trap that ultimately derailed this young man.

He was quieter than most kids, but an eager student and – at his core – a warm, loving boy. His parents say that he mostly wanted to please, hungry for the pat on the head that said ‘well done.’

That need to please extended beyond his parents, and perhaps explained why he was particularly vulnerable to pressure from his peers. Adolescents crave acceptance – we all do, really, but for kids it’s doubly difficult because they have no history by which to judge their choices. The lure of something – or someone – flashy is too hard to ignore.

So Aaron chose to associate with two other boys his age, boys of questionable character who wanted a following as much as Aaron desired friendship. The alternative (in Aaron’s mind) was isolation and loneliness, two things that the thirteen-year-old had experienced plenty of. Against his better judgment, he signed on for trouble. Sadly, it involved juvenile court.

The story is familiar to many parents because the threat of rejection motivates countless young people to make poor choices. Their fear of being ostracized and left out of “the fun” will override that little voice warning of consequences; it’s a gamble that they’ll take in order to join the crowd.

Making the right choice generally requires the perspective of time, a luxury that pre-teens and teenagers have in short supply. As parents, we should begin preparing this lesson long before it’s needed, before the siren call of dangerous peers can work its magic.

Aaron’s parents waited, convinced that no harm would befall their sensitive, loving son. What they failed to account for was simply human nature: we desperately want to be part of the tribe.

It’s tough to say no to that tribe when the perceived alternative is isolation. But Dogen was wise in his assessment that pain and loneliness are ultimately preferable when the companionship is unworthy. Getting that message across to a child requires a steady, gentle form of coaching, using examples from our own past, if possible.

We can’t choose our kids’ friends, and to attempt that often creates friction; be honest, you didn’t like it when your parents tried it, either. But you can supply your child with quiet, articulate information, recounting your own experiences, much like a storyteller passing down tribal lore. Show them other choices, and teach the concept of consequences, both good and bad. Imbue them with enough data to help them – on their own – recognize the benefit of short-term pain compared to the misery of a life-altering mistake.

Buddha said: “He who walks in the company of fools suffers a long way.” So, even though it pains us, as parents, to watch our kids left out, one of the best gifts we can give to our children is to help prevent the long-term pain they’ll suffer from association with the wrong crowd.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents who want their children to choose friends wisely.