Are your friends making you misbehave?

This is actual Facebook dialogue between a few of our alum (college freshman) and a KIPP senior.

College Freshman #1: They don’t have parties like this at home.  ATL is where it’s at.

College Freshman #2: That’s nothing we packed like 800 people into the club this weekend.

KIPP Senior:  I can’t wait to get to college.

After I got over the initial wave of terror that-fifth graders I read the Sneetches to are now stumbling around nightclubs three distinct voices started arguing in my head.  There’s the voice screaming: Why aren’t your studying?  You didn’t work this hard just to pack a club. The slightly more logical voice that says: Jesus I know what college is like but you don’t have to share it with me. And a third more curious voice that wonders: is this a good or a bad thing?

There’s no need to write about the perils of underage clubbing or the shocking willingness of our kids to share immense amounts of personal information on line.  Writers more knowledgeable than myself have addressed these issues.  Instead I wanted to ask questions about the relationships we build between our students.

A recent NYT article recounted a series of research findings about the phenomenon of “social contagion.”   This paragraph best distills the findings:

Two years ago, a pair of social scientists named Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler used the information collected over the years about Joseph and Eileen and several thousand of their neighbors to make an entirely different kind of discovery. By analyzing the Framingham data, Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems. Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people. By keeping in close, regular contact with other healthy friends for decades, Eileen and Joseph had quite possibly kept themselves alive and thriving. And by doing precisely the opposite, the lone obese man hadn’t.

These findings may seem  painfully apparent to most teachers.  Your peer group impacts your behavior-really-they paid you a lot of money to figure that out-isn’t that swell-I wish our school’s funding increased every time we came to an obvious conclusion.    While the overall conclusions feel obvious there are some interesting findings in this research.

Interesting Finding #1: Obesity seemed to be able to jump from friend to friend even over great distances. When people moved away, their weight gain still appeared to influence friends back in Massachusetts. In such cases, the local environment couldn’t be making both gain weight,  If the study is true then presumably when our kids go off to college they will be hugely impacted by the decisions of their teammates.  This has frightening and exciting implications.

Interesting Finding #2:  They discovered that people who were deeply enmeshed in friendship circles were usually much happier than “isolates,” those with few ties. If connected people are happier than isolated people should we teach kids to be more extroverted?

Interesting Finding #3: Their other finding is more intriguing and arguably more significant: They discovered that behaviors appear to spread differently depending on the type of friendship that exists between two people. In the Framingham study, people were asked to name a close friend. But the friendships weren’t always symmetrical. Though Steven might designate Peter as his friend, Peter might not think of Steven the same way; he might never designate Steven as a friend. Christakis and Fowler found that this “directionality” mattered greatly. According to their data, if Steven becomes obese, it has no effect on Peter at all, because he doesn’t think of Steven as a close friend. In contrast, if Peter gains weight, then Steven’s risk of obesity rises by almost 100 percent. And if the two men regard each other as mutual friends, the effect is huge — either one gaining weight almost triples the other’s risk. In Framingham, Christakis and Fowler found this directionality effect even among people who lived and worked very close to each other. And that, they argue, means it can’t be the environment that is making people in Framingham fatter, since the environment ought to affect each of these friends equally.

This finding raises a million questions : Should we be socially engineering our kids’ relationships?  How much do we socially engineer?  We are often super aware of the social dynamics at play amongst our kids.  Go to any paycheck meeting and you will find teachers making statements like…

“Everybody in Harvard cues off of Jovan. Those girls follow Sherron’s lead.  Chevon and Ashley are bad for each other.”

IT’S TEMPTING TO think, confronted by Christakis and Fowler’s work, that the best way to improve your life is to simply cut your ties to people with bad behavior. And obviously this is possible; people change their friends often, sometimes abruptly. But reshaping your social network may be more challenging than altering your behavior.

We talk about it a lot (the only people more obsessed with teen hierarchy than teens are their teacher).  We (and parents) preach and say a lot of things like “choose your friends wisely”  “stop hanging around so and so”  “You need to make sure you don’t sit beside Jaquan during Pride time because you guys don’t make good decisions.”  Still I wonder: What do we actually do to teach and hold kids accountable for building strong positive relationships?  Are we in the business of deciding who is popular and who is friends?

I don’t have an answer but I worry about these statements, even when they come out of my own mouth.  I worry that they convey a permanency and a hidden set of excuses.  I also worry because  our kids often believe we are trying to choose their relationships for them when in fact we don’t really know what we want.

I don’t know whether the alum’s Facebook dialogue exemplifies a strong bond of support that will keep them in college or is a symptom of negative relationship.  I do know I need to pay better attention to the relationships my kids form with each other and figure out how the school supports the relationships that save lives.

A few, hopefully practical takeaways for adult learning…

How we talk about kids amongst ourselves is nearly as important as how talk to the kids.  Have a conversation with the grade level chairs about how we talk about kids and explain to ourselves and the kids daily decisions like switching seating charts.  Having teachers look at actual quotes and analyzing the messages can be a powerful way to accomplish this.

Create incentives that reward positively influencing peers.  Lots of people have experimented with paycheck buddies or rewards for the group that improves the most.

Focus a conversation on the strengths of friendships we observe in our kids and how to leverage those strengths.

What and how do you teach kids about friendship and social networks?

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