Social and Interpersonal Development

How to help kids with social pressures

Delaney Ruston, MD
August 2, 2022
Stick figure pushing a rock with social pressure on it

In author David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, he shared the following parable:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace said, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” 

I have often thought this parable relates to the social pressures that teens are submerged in online and offline. Just like the fish, they often don’t realize it. Pressures such as: Should I be wearing this brand? Should I try those skateboard tricks I saw on YouTube? Should I try vaping?

Throughout my kids’ school careers, I’ve always reminded them, “You are steeped in social pressures, and there is no way you can fully appreciate the weight of them until you get to the other side. Social pressures never completely disappear, but they lessen greatly after your schooling days.” 

I’ve explained to them how revelatory it was for me when I left college and started working as a research assistant in a lab at the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C. I went from being a little fish clueless about the vast water around me to this older fish seeing the water clearly now. 

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I had a new awareness of all the social pressures I experienced as a student. Under my now-conscious radar, feelings and insecurities about who my true friends were or how I should act around certain people didn’t matter as much to me anymore. 

These weren’t thoughts that ruled my days, but were molecules that made up the air that I moved in and added pressure that I was not even aware of most of the time. 

I felt gleeful after leaving college and stepping into a lab full of seasoned scientists, post-docs and recent grads like me. I felt the same in the health clinic. 

Becoming that “older fish” from Foster’s speech was freeing. Do you recall times when you suddenly felt free from insidious social pressure as an adult?

My kids have told me that my reminders of the water they are swimming in helped them at times.

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Questions to help kids gain awareness about social pressures:

  1. It is a gift to periodically help your kids understand that social pressures are present in their lives. Summer provides a calmer time of year to raise the topic.  You might broach the topic by asking, “Can you think of any school-related social pressures, like social cliques or comparisons, that you are enjoying a break from this summer? 
  1. Even though school is out, social pressures still exist via social media and other platforms. Perhaps ask a question like, “Are there things happening in your online social life that bring up any “should ofs” or  “If onlys?”
  1. When have you felt the least amount of social pressure this summer? How about the most? Have you felt any kind of pressure from any remarks or certain attitudes from people you are socializing with this summer-such as at camp, a summer job, summer sports, or such?
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Social and Interpersonal Development

How to help kids with social pressures

Delaney Ruston, MD
August 2, 2022
Stick figure pushing a rock with social pressure on it

In author David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, he shared the following parable:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace said, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” 

I have often thought this parable relates to the social pressures that teens are submerged in online and offline. Just like the fish, they often don’t realize it. Pressures such as: Should I be wearing this brand? Should I try those skateboard tricks I saw on YouTube? Should I try vaping?

Throughout my kids’ school careers, I’ve always reminded them, “You are steeped in social pressures, and there is no way you can fully appreciate the weight of them until you get to the other side. Social pressures never completely disappear, but they lessen greatly after your schooling days.” 

I’ve explained to them how revelatory it was for me when I left college and started working as a research assistant in a lab at the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C. I went from being a little fish clueless about the vast water around me to this older fish seeing the water clearly now. 

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