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The peer advantage

4 August 2014 No Comment

Sharayu Kamath

As a child, I grew up in an extended family with several cousins and friends my age or slightly younger or older. Schooling was in a large, all girls convent, with over 3000 students marching to the rhythm of strict discipline set by nuns. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was an era awash with information and knowledge ‘handed down’ by the adults in our lives – teachers, parents, uncles, and aunts. Children rarely opined. Self-esteem had not started being bandied about as it is today! Love was not verbally articulated as much as shown through distinct and indistinct means such as birthday treats, special occasion dinners, holidays, even pocket money! We understood we were loved. However, there was a distinct, unspoken yet accepted distance between parents and children. It wasn’t tactile, but neither was it fraught with a need to change the status quo. However, the heart carried within it thoughts and feelings that needed to be shared and for that we had classmates, friends and best friends! Our small world was full of best friends and favourite cousins with whom handed over information by adults and newly discovered information from books (this was the pre 24 hour TV explosion) would be endlessly discussed, dissected, debated, laughed over, cried over, fought for – while hopping playing hopscotch, shuttling around playing badminton, morning walks and after dinner walks, in hushed corners of our homes, away from adult ears, snuggled in sheets, whispering into the wee hours of the morning, dragging our feet between classes in school, literally trying to stretch time to match our slow shuffles – to just talk and discuss. This was our initial learning ground – not what teachers taught us or what our parents instructed us, but what our friends shared with us. Now we call it peer learning. Of course, I fully realize that my description of fond childhood memories is an oversimplification of the importance and significance of peer learning; however, it does have its roots in the influence exerted by our peers, at every age and stage of our lives.

Now I am a single parent, raising a single child who has very few cousins in far off places, who is also being partially homeschooled and attends an alternative learning centre with eight children. Life could not be more different for her as a child and me as a parent. In a world that has increasingly become more nuclear and competitive, which means children are off the road and in coaching centres, I find myself reaching out to lots of folks, including people I don’t know directly, for ‘play dates’! Whatever happened to children playing on the streets outside their home or being holed up in each others’ homes for extended periods with minimal adult intervention? While I have come to realize that a lot of attitudes and beliefs adopted from peers at certain ages was due to an absence of a strong sense of self (Father says, “Listen to M.S. Subbalakshmi – classical music is pure music.” Daughter’s response is to engage even more heavily with heavy metal) and navigating the treacherous terrain of relationships; the bottom line is that children need children!

The-peer-advantage Unlike educators, I would not like to give it a pedagogic or educational connotation or be even able to specify a goal to attain. To me, very simply, peers or in my example – friends – are essential to a child’s growth. A teacher led assignment in school was about as exciting as studying a rock and did far less for my confidence and enthusiasm than writing and directing a play or teaching music to the school choir, which elevated me to cult Rock n Roll status in school. The sense of leadership, camaraderie, collaboration, even disagreement did far more for all of us. The level of absorption, responsibility and seriousness was pretty phenomenal. As students, such spontaneous and natural learning processes derived from shared interests or collaborative projects is far more beneficial. It pains me to see children shunted to various after school learning academies and burgeoning summer camps, which again reinforce the sense of isolation, rather than have the freedom to just meet up and play. I have seen kids do group work, albeit with the good intention to promote teamwork and creative thinking, seem like they would be far more enthused just being machines. I have seen mechanised processes parading as peer learning. The kind of exhaustive routines I see children go through seem to woefully detract from true collaboration that comes from playing and learning together, which is what makes learning meaningful. So what if they have a fight or two, argue, yell, and stop talking to each other? Working through feelings like hurt, sadness, saying sorry, and making up are so important. The same can be extrapolated to any relationship and that is skilling for life.

Every parent wants the best for their child. We all would like to believe that our inputs have a lasting effect on our children and will Google into the night, talk endlessly with friends for advice or strive for zen like epiphanies to ensure our children get everything right, striving to prevent children from picking up ‘bad habits’ or inappropriate behaviour. There are minor battle lines drawn in my own home (Optimus Prime on a relaxed day) about my daughter’s accent, manner of speaking, food habits, etc., which are at odds with some family members’ very Brit boarding school upbringing. But truth be told, attitudes, belief systems, what makes us who we are, comes from a complex hotpot of all manners of influences. We sift and filter our experiences, we shape shift much like the almost lovable Twilight werewolves, trying on various avatars as we evolve through our relationship with others. At the same time, I also believe that bringing up a child in a nurturing environment, where she/he has the space to speak freely, feels no fear and is treated with respect and consideration, does have the ability to offset potentially negative peer influence. I don’t say this from experience just as yet as my daughter is still young; however I feel this to be true.

At the end of the day, at any age or stage of our lives, we all need friends and even as adults, we continue to be influenced by what we see, read, and experience. Peer learning or influence continues well into our older years, whether we recognize it as such or not.

The author primarily works from home and is a doer of many things – freelance content writer, experimental baker, explorer of natural living, animal lover, and Reiki practitioner. She tries and finds time to do all the above, but not necessarily on the same day! She can be reached at sharayukamath@gmail.com.

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