There’s so much going on in teens’ social world that it can be hard for parents to know where to start. Even if kids were inclined to talk with parents about school social dynamics (which they usually aren’t), they’re so immersed in it that they have no frame of reference. We may not know the details of their world, but we can provide some perspective to help them think about what’s going on around them.
For instance, parents can talk about power dynamics; not just power in relationships with authority figures, but also among peers. As you’ll remember from your own youth, not every student in a school has an equal amount of sway. Those who have the most clout can get away with all sorts of things—and can attract all sorts of sexual attention from those lower on the hierarchy.
The word “power” can trigger reactions in many of us, because it’s so often associated with abuses of power. But power isn’t all bad. We all want the personal power that lets us control our own body and choices. We want (and should have) the ability to say Yes or No to anything to do with sex. We want to be empowered, and we want our children to be empowered.
That’s different from having power over others, which is more complicated.
People may have the power to influence or control others:
If they have more resources (money, a nice car, an older sibling who’s willing to buy alcohol…) that others might want to benefit from.
If they’re more popular. Cool kids have power because other kids will do things to please them (consciously or unconsciously hoping to rise in the school pecking order).
If they’re attractive. People want to be around beautiful people, want to date them, want to be like them, and so are more likely to do what they want.
If they’re older. A senior may have more sway with freshmen than he would with other seniors. Not only are older students likely to be seen as cooler, they know more about the world and may be able to use that knowledge to get others to go along with them.
If they’re persuasive. Some people are natural salespeople who can talk others into doing things.
If they represent a scarce resource. If the gender mix in a given place is skewed, the underrepresented gender has more clout in the sexual arena. Guys at heavily female campuses have lots of potential partners, so they tend to call the shots about sexual practices; women at predominantly male colleges find it easier to define the terms of engagement.
None of this power is inherently bad or good; it all depends on how it’s used. For example, social power can be used constructively–“Hey! Stop picking on that kid” or “Let’s raise money for the homeless shelter”–or negatively: “Your parents are away; you don’t mind if some of us come by for a party, do you?”
As parents, we can talk to our kids about the power dynamics they experience at school. They certainly are aware that some people have more sway than others, but they may not have the language to articulate it. What do they see going on around them? Where do they fit into the hierarchy?
If your child is especially attractive or popular, talk about the responsibilities that come with that blessing. How does she want to use her power? Does she want to be mean or selfish about it, or try to make her school a nicer place?
If your child is less cool, acknowledge that it can be hard. Encourage him to think about the strengths he does have and to make friends with (and date) people he actually enjoys, rather than worrying about who’s popular. Make sure he knows that people who are cool and powerful in high school aren’t necessarily the people who do well in life or end up in great relationships.
In terms of sex and dating, young people need to be aware that the playing field may not be level. Encourage your kids to consider that the person they’re interested in might not be looking for a balanced relationship. Does the person of interest tend to have a lot of partners? Does she treat other people well? Does he demonstrate a sustained interest in your kid as a person, or could he be collecting notches on his bedpost? Does your child want to be one in a series of partners, or would he/she rather have a longer relationship? If he/she gives up something to the popular person, will there really be something worthwhile in return?
Help your children focus on finding their own voices, their own strengths and sources of personal power, friendships that will help them know their true selves—all the things that will empower them, even in the face of someone else’s social power.