Importance of Pecking Order

I have worked with teenagers since 1975, and in that time I have been through my own transformative journey, as well as witnessing behavioural patterns which re-occur generation after generation.

When I first started working I found it difficult to get into clubs and bars, mainly because I was under age, but also because of my appearance. I resolved to change this. I bought a crushed blue velvet jacket with the widest lapels you can imagine. (I know, but it was the early 1970’s!)

I looked and felt very different when I wore this jacket. It changed my place in the pecking order. Suddenly, I was welcomed into all the clubs, and attracted the attention of women. Was it really just the size of my lapels that did it?
A few years later I worked in a Children’s Home, and the boys were amongst the most outrageously loud characters I’d ever met. In the confines of the Home they strutted like peacocks, they were Alpha males, but, during the course of any bus journey from the Home into town, they slowly transformed from cocky arrogant hooligans into timid quiet sheep. For some time this transformation puzzled me, and then I realised why it occurred. As kids from a Home they wore second hand clothes, they had hand-me-downs, not the latest fashions. The Home kids were intimidated by the clothes the ‘normal’ kids on the bus wore, and it radically affected their behaviour and sense of status.

I am employed to train social and care workers to work with teenagers, as a starting point I introduce them to the concept of ‘pecking order’. Teenagers seek out and want to know where they stand in the pecking order. There are any number of pecking orders to be joined, they cover a wide spectrum of activities – appearance, behaviour, football, sports, fashion, gaming, school, etc. They can be very specialised, or they can be generic, they are the equivalent of league tables, and we can be high in some and low in others. They have always been there, and each generation of teens creates their own new structures and frameworks, as well as rules and regulations. He is ‘in’ because he wears the latest trainers. He is ‘out’ because he hasn’t tied his scarf in the right knot.

For me the creation of pecking orders is a very healthy and normal part of life. It always has accompanied adolescence and the onset of puberty. It can on occasions become a very painful, spiteful and antagonistic forum. Rejection from your order is devastating, just as acceptance can be liberating. In each of the pecking orders there will be jostling and fighting for places amongst the Alphas, Betas and Gammas.

The Alphas trying to stay ahead of the Betas by re-organising the specifications, exerting their power; the Betas fighting amongst themselves for ascendency and validation; and the Gammas being subservient to their Alpha masters, doing all the dirty jobs.

Many of the professionals I teach don’t like the concept of pecking order, especially the division into classes or factions, they feel such a state of affairs is inappropriate and divisive. It is, but it is also normal and to be expected. We shouldn’t suppress it, by doing so, we will only make it more extreme, we need to work alongside it.

Adolescents need to have peer appraisal and assessment, otherwise they won’t know who they truly are. If they don’t try to step up to their pecking orders, they will remain judging themselves by their parent’s criteria, not their peers. Peer appraisal can be harsh by other people’s (outsiders) standards.
Within the framework of any newly forming pecking order there is continual posturing and competition. This needs to be channelled in such a way that it doesn’t lead to violence, intolerance and hatred, and this is mostly the case. As with competition in nature, 99% of the time it remains posturing, it remains bravado, it remains challenge and risk without going too far. I encourage the professionals to let pecking orders occur naturally and not to interfere. Pecking orders often give adolescents a sense of belonging, which they haven’t had before.

People can gain strength from their Gamma status in the pecking order, however lowly and demeaning this may appear to others. A few years ago I worked in the wilderness with a diverse group of teenagers, some from social services and others from well-off backgrounds. They divided and kept separate for the majority of the time, occasionally pushing the boundaries of their groupings, but mostly remaining in their social class. Early one morning I sat with the kids from social services, we poked sticks into the fire, we brewed tea, we chatted, laughed and there was a strong feeling of bond, mutual support and camaraderie. After a while one of the boys from the other group woke and came to join us at the fire. Through no fault or action of his, the atmosphere changed instantly, it became awkward and silent. The boys I was with withdrew back into their social standing, they chose to maintain the status quo.

To some extent the magic was lost, but it was also safer and more secure for those boys to inhabit familiar territory. The social standing to which these boys were conforming can be likened to the ‘Geeks and Jocks’ of America. As teenagers, the majority of us know on which side of the divide we stand. Accepting our place can enable us paradoxically to gain status. Those geeks who know they are geeks, can attempt to become Alpha geeks. In recent years the portrayal of the geek as hero has become a strong motif in Hollywood, and it has shifted the balance of power.

So, despite apparent lowly status boys can find self belief and confidence within their social group. ‘Belonging’ is a very powerful thing, and it reflects knowing your limitations and strengths. When I talked later about the incident with the boys this came over very strongly in their discussion. They said they were happy for the alpha boys to be in charge of the fire most of the time, and they observed such actions with detachment and humour. That morning, through circumstance, they’d taken control of the fire for a period of time, they’d taken control on their terms and in their own particular way. Not stacking loads of wood and creating a huge conflagration, but sticking in the ends of sticks and making them glow. This had made them happy. As one of the lads said ‘I don’t want to be so aggressive and competitive, that kind of behaviour looks very exhausting to me.’

Often those professionals opposed to the idea of pecking order are the ones who behave that way. As a test of this I remind them of the decisions they made (conscious and unconscious) when they entered the room for our training session. Who am I going to sit next to? I won’t sit too close to her. He’s a bit loud and bright, I don’t want to sit with him. Do I sit at the front of the class? Do I sit at the back? Pecking orders are acted on all the time, even when we are supposedly ‘grown up’.

Boys and Girls

The Story 

“Finally the eggs began to crack. “Peep …Peep” they said one after another. The egg yolks had become alive and were sticking out their heads.

“Quack…Quack..” said their mother. “Look around you.”

And the ducklings did; they glanced at the green world about them, and that was what their mother wanted them to do, for green was good for their eyes.

“How big the world is!” piped the little ones, for they had much more space to move around in now than they had had inside the egg.

“Do you think that this is the whole world?” quacked their mother. “The world is much larger than this. It stretches as far as the minister’s wheat fields, though I have not been there ..”


Interpretation of this part of the story

For me these early eggs are female, as they hatch the mother imparts an important lesson, the world is big, but it stretches only so far.  These are the domestic boundaries all mothers are in charge of, and she does this work intuitively.   She gives them boundaries, as far as the Minister’s wheat fields.  Is that a discrete reference to religion?  The Minister knows where the edge of existence is, his land reaches that far, no one else’s does.  The mother shows them where their place is in the world, and the edge of it is known, yet unexplored, as it is so far away.  It is one of the most important lessons that a child can receive from its parents – a definition of the safe and known world.  This imparts a huge amount of security and a feeling of well being in the child. Your mother is the font of this knowledge.  She confidently asserts the boundaries and limits, without doubt or uncertainty.  However, she has imparted this message to the girls, and not the boy, he is not yet out of his shell.  He hasn’t heard the message.  When he finally appears in the world, there will be no boundaries, there is no safety and security.


Resonance for us now

I work with a lot of boys on the council estates of South Wales.  Boundary-less young men seeking a reaction, desperately seeking limits through their intimidatory behaviour. The single parent off spring with no role models, who furtively seek something incomprehensible.  They seek it domestically at first, within the home, and then they go out into the wider world and pursue it.  Throughout this time they encounter no boundaries. They don’t feel held, so they don’t feel respect.  They feel limitless in their exponential seeking of boundaries.  They manifest this in their addictions, their bullying, their callous brutality, and their mindlessly inconsiderate behaviour.  Like most of those boys, the Ugly Duckling doesn’t have a father, he has no role model to follow, so he has to make it up himself.  How different it would have been if he had a father who cared, who knew what his job was around children.


Examples from near and far

In a sense, because we are no longer aware of the significance and importance of an extended family, we are now expecting far too much from the mothers and the fathers of our children.  In the extended family the job of raising the boys and girls was mainly performed by the grandparents.  In the Dagara people of Ghana the responsibility lies with the grandfather to teach the boy about life, then he directs the boy back to his father.   We lost this extended support structure for our children a long time ago, and it is a very difficult job to bring up children as a mother and a father, without support and caring helpers.  Unfortunately, we don’t expect our parents to only bring up children. We have created a culture in which success is measured by our children and the ‘proper’ jobs we do as well.  We expect our mothers to not only nurture and love their children, but also to have a job, be sexual, keep young looks and figure, cook imaginatively and creatively, paint and decorate the house every few years, amongst other things.  We expect our fathers to be the main providers for the family, to play with and be loving towards their children, to teach them about respect, morals and virtues, to be intelligent and successful, to be self-made, to run a business, to be caring and sharing with their partners, etc.  No wonder most men and women are confused about who they are – let alone what their responsibilities are.  No wonder so many thirty-year olds are saying “Have children?  No thank you, I’m just too busy.”


How can we use this?

All children have a mother and a father.  This is a symbiotic relationship, the culmination of evolutionary processes on this planet for hundreds of millions of years.  In terms of the development of their children, the mother has a more important role in the early years.  She breast feeds, she imparts the domestic boundaries and knowledge.  However, the father still plays a role in those early years, and he will play an increasingly important role as they grow older.  Particularly, in the development of a boy, but he also has roles and functions for girls.  If he didn’t have these roles to play, then we would have evolved a different way.  Dads stick around, they are programmed to remain on the scene.  Unlike other creatures, we are genetically programmed to continue to provide for our youngsters.  Out of all the babies born in the natural world, human babies remain with their parents the longest, so a father must have some use.


Just about every book I have ever read on parenting deals with what the mother needs to do.  They are almost always written from the mother/female perspective.  There is very little literature, information, or advice available for a father who wants to take an active role in his child’s development.  What information there is tells him how he should copy being a mother.  I believe there are separate and important jobs, roles and tasks a father performs for his children.  Instead of these being just a man’s way of doing something the mother does, they are actually male ways of doing things, and best performed by men, I call them ‘extending the boundary’ activities.


Extending the boundaries

I used a lot of examples of the first of these activities in Chapter Two – nature walks, adventures in the wilderness, building camps – being away from home- extending the boundaries of experience beyond the domestic.  When men do this they role model the safe extension of the domestic boundaries into new areas in a controlled and loving way.  This is hugely important in the development of both girls and boys.


The second group of activities are specifically to do with water – fishing, sailing, canoeing, surfing, etc – all of which seem to be male dominated.  This is an interesting area, as a generalization, men seem to be more comfortable and proficient at such activities than women.   Why is that?   I don’t know, but it is vitally important for the development of our children, they need to feel safe around water.


The third group of activities concerns the taking apart and making of things.  Men have a propensity to enjoy dismantling and constructing a huge variety of things – machines, toys, artifacts, houses, etc. Again this is a generalization, but we need to see that there are certain things men have a natural tendency towards, which they need to role model to their children and to other children.  Men will teach about this activity by just doing it – by being in their shed, workspace, and getting on with it.  It is vitally important for both boys and girls to join in, not be excluded, and they are enabled to see and understand what he is doing.


Again these activities relate back to enthusiasm, if the man is enthusiastic about collecting and painting toy soldiers, ( I know, I can’t understand why they do this, but lots do!) then let him share this with his children and other children.   They will learn a huge amount from sharing the experience, they may not necessarily become model soldier enthusiasts, but something will be imparted about how to be a man, and what it is to be male.


On a much simpler level, a father, or a man, can do a huge number of things with their children in their own way, which will have a lasting impact on them.

They start with:-

*  Holding a baby

*  The smell and feel of the father is vitally important to babies

*  Fathers can be rougher and more risk taking in their relationship to their child, they will throw them in the air, they will give them thrills their mothers may be too cautious to provide

*  A cuddle from your father means something different from your mother

*  Time with father, play with father, interaction with fathers are intrinsically different

*  A father tells different stories

*  A father shows the child different perspectives on the same landscape

*  A father will invoke a different response within the child when he comes into view


They develop into:-

*  A father teaches about the world, the boundaries beyond the domestic

*  A father teaches about collaboration, mutual support, how to bond

*  A father teaches about hunting

*  A father teaches about sharing and the need to work together

*  A father teaches about physical strength and it’s relationship to tenderness and boundaries


An example of what a father or positive male role model can do, which a mother can’t. “Fathers who play-fight with their children are helping them grow into well-adjusted adults.  The tendency of men to rough-house and be physical with youngsters has been discouraged since the 1960’s, when child psychologists suggested it might be harmful.

Now the first rigorous study of the issue has shown that children with such fathers are amongst the friendliest and most peaceful and popular in the school playground.  By contrast, children who are mollycoddled at home and discouraged from rough behaviour are much more likely to turn into bullies or their victims.  Charlie Lewis, professor of development psychology at Lancaster University and an authority on child-father relationships, said “There is something special about rough-house play with dads that helps a child to learn self-control.”

Such finding will appear counter-intuitive to mothers, many of whom assume that simulated violence and toys such as plastic guns and swords will predispose their children to violence.  Such fears are misplaced.  Mothers should instead let children and fathers act out their aggression in a friendly and controlled way.  It forces a child to confront how he or she relates to other people and it’s a safe place to learn rules of engagement.” Michael Durham   Sunday Times, March 2000

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