Leaders And Their Packs

Imagine the scene. You are driving down Main Street in a coastal town in New Jersey, or any Jewish suburban community for that matter, on your way to the supermarket. It’s a nice summer day and you can smell the salty sea air drifting in from the Atlantic.

You stop at a red light, when all of a sudden a swarm of 20 bicycles swoops down on you from behind, riding at Lance Armstrong breakneck pace, heading straight for the kosher pizza store. Not two minutes later another horde of teenagers follows. This is not just a casual group of friends. This is a pack.

The pack concept is neither indigenous to one town nor limited to teenagers. Groups of fourth and fifth grade girls roam the streets of my hometown Teaneck on Shabbat afternoons. Similar to the teenage pack, they descend on one girl’s house then move on when boredom sets in or there is nothing left to eat or with which to play.

A pack is not a group of friends. A group of friends is a few kids with common interests who like to hang out together maybe studying or doing things once in a while, rarely spending more then a few hours together. A pack is 10 or 20 people moving together doing everything short of sleeping together.

Scientific definitions of the pack are “an exclusive circle of people with a common purpose” or “a group of hunting animals.” Both definitions are most appropriate. A group of friends is “wanna go for pizza?” A pack is “we’re going for pizza” whether you like it or not because we’re a pack. In a pack you don’t “do your own thing.”

Belonging to a pack is not necessarily a conscious decision; it is instinctive. The pack itself follows its instinct, it struggles to survive. But the pack is generally not looking for territory or mates, the modern human pack needs to be stuffed with pizza ad nauseam and entertained — “we’re going to a movie.”

The alpha pack member makes the decisions for the pack; the alpha is the one on the front bike, the one who decides in which basement Shabbat afternoon will be spent. The others listen. They are assigned tasks. The big ones bring up the rear. The pack is moving again, “we’re going to the park.”

Interestingly, religion is a socially binding behavior of humans. Current scientific theories hold that religion is also instinctive and that it is somehow evolutionarily advantageous for the group or even the species as a whole. “Cohesive social groups survive, and the strongest glue is religion,” writer L. Warren Douglas wrote in an essay on his Web site.

Religious guidance offered in many high schools than takes on a whole new meaning, perhaps not only offering lessons in how to expand one’s spiritual self but also providing a sense of belonging and community.

Dr. Atara Berliner, a psychologist at the Ramaz Middle School, explains that teens are searching for a sense of personal identity and independence from the family and so instead of going to their parents for support, they turn to their peer group. It’s not that the teen doesn’t need his or her family, it’s that they have a “harder time conceding to that dependency at this age” and turn to friends as a substitute for their family.

For boys especially, the pack hierarchal system is a part of the male power struggle, the constant measuring up, always calculating who’s ahead. Boys tend to have a more obvious leader, a personal status to be achieved. Girls are more subtle in their social structure and tend to use language to convey a sense of power. They use gossip, glances, and secrets in an attempt to marginalize people while keeping the pack cohesive.

Dr. Seth Aronson, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, adds that packs are a part of adolescent development. Teens begin to spend more time away from home with activities and are in school longer. The group becomes the family for them in some respects and they will begin to learn from their peer group. Being in a group is a chance to get more interpersonal feedback from peers and peers take on a new significance.

It is no longer necessarily your mother who dictates what shirt you wear — it is your peers. Teens will also see differences between themselves and others and consequentially discover who they are. Peer groups help develop this identity. The teen finds out “who I am and who I am not.” They are opened up more to the world outside of family.

Dr. Hillel Grossman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, offers a different view. He maintains that teens and preteens are at an age in which they begin noticing each other and differences between themselves and others. They become unsure of themselves and depend on the security derived from being with others in groups.

The tendency towards being insecure with themselves and with their own identity leads to taking on the identity of a group. Teens gravitate towards sports teams and leagues for a sense of team identity. The task for maturing teenagers is to develop a sense of identity that allows them to express themselves outside of the group, according to Grossman. In his view, the pack may take on a negative edge in that it prevents teenagers from properly maturing.

Packs aren’t for everyone; some do better with a small group of friends. But some kids need a sense of association, of belonging, of importance. Are packs a problem, an abnormality, perhaps the result of social disorders?

The pack is not a clique, the pack is not elite or restricted or private. It may or may not be a bad thing. Perhaps a pack is merely an example of severe peer pressure. As long as the pack is not involved in tawdry or dangerous activities, it may serve a real purpose of providing a safe social environment for teenagers who may otherwise be left to their own devises.

Packs have the ability to bring kids together and give some kids a sense of belonging but may prevent others from growing up. As with everything in life, perhaps the key is moderation. Can I have some maturity with that pizza please? n

Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy