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In middle school, how did peers influence your behavior in a positive or negative way? Give examples.

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This is the type of question that can only be answered by the individual student searching his or her memory and reflecting on the history of personal relationships that have come and gone over the relatively brief years of one’s life. No other person, certainly not a stranger, can help with this assignment except to offer some thoughts on the kinds of behavior that may influence specific individuals for better or for worse.

Middle school is a period of great transition for students. No longer really children in some ways but still several years away from adulthood, it is a transitory phase of one’s life during which personality characteristics or idiosyncrasies continue to form and assume the shape they will retain for years to come. This is not to suggest that middle school–aged students are not immature children; they are. What I am suggesting is that the processes of growing and learning assumes, in some ways, greater significance than in the past. Children in kindergarten and elementary school are, in most cases, still insulated from the worst influences that may emerge. The innocence of youth is embodied in elementary-school students whereas middle-school students are maturing physically and mentally in a way that clearly manifests itself in the loss of innocence and the adoption of traits or habits that are anything but innocent.

When reflecting on the influence of one’s peers, the student should consider the distinctions between legal and illegal and between accepted and unaccepted societal norms—a difficult challenge considering how these change over time (e.g., marijuana usage has become more socially acceptable and legal in more places, thereby placing it in a grayer area than heretofore had been the case, although it is still extremely unhealthy for maturing children and teenagers). Distinguishing between positive and negative influences, therefore, is more subjective than one might initially believe. The task, then, is for the individual student to consider the distinction between “positive” and “negative” and then reflect on those relationships that have proven either one or the other (or, in some cases, both).

Peers from whom a student learns the importance of studying hard in order to attain the best grade of which one is capable is clearly a positive influence. Peers from whom a student learns to lie and to evade responsibilities is a negative influence. Peers who bully or belittle other students are a negative influence, whereas peers who offer to help those less fortunate or less able are a positive influence. As a parent of a middle school student, I strongly encourage my son to eschew play that is emotionally harmful to other children while adopting a more positive demeanor, one associated with people who value helping others. When surrounded by peers who tend to act in a less beneficial manner, my son is prone to making the wrong choice and following his friends’ lead. Such friends are a negative influence in that respect, although they are a positive influence in other respects.

Each of us carries with us the influences, some subtle or subconscious, some readily apparent, of those with whom we have spent a lot of time over several years. In answering the question, therefore, try and point to examples in which your peers displayed admirable traits, such as working hard and helping others, as well as those peers who displayed negative traits, like cheating, stealing, or bullying.

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