In the lounge where kids hang out after school there are a couple of sofas and a few armchairs. There’s a group of maybe 10 kids clustered around a sofa. Four of them are seated, playing games on laptops or tablets. The rest are ranged behind them, watching them engaged in Minecraft combat or whatever else is being played by their classmates.
My son is ensconced alone in an armchair, reading a book. He’s distanced from the other kids spatially – it’s geographically obvious – but socially as well. He doesn’t yet speak much Spanish. He’s more interested in books than video games. He doesn’t give a shit about Minecraft. He’s not one of them.
And my heart pangs. I want him to be part of the group. I want him to integrate and be one of the in kids, to be popular and a part (instead of apart), to be one of those kids watching other kids play video games.
But wait. Do I really? Would I be happier to see him watching other children strafing skeletons and creepers with, I don’t know, whatever it is you strafe skeletons and creepers with? How pointless, how, how should I put it, mindlessness-once-removed. I’ve got nothing really against video games, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about my son being, well, different, and the best way to handle that.
He’s not at all into organized sports, either playing or watching them. If you were to say ‘Leo Messi’ to him, his immediate mental image would probably be of an unkempt lion, and he’d race off to Google it in order to find out if there was some rare leonine subspecies of which he was woefully unaware.
One of the questions he got when we first arrived in Spain was whether he preferred Barça or Real Madrid. He had no idea what the hell he was being asked, and even if he had he wouldn’t have been able, unlike most boys his age in these parts, to offer an opinion. His most accurate (though perhaps not most appropriate) answer would have been, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about either of them.”
But other kids do, and that’s what worries me. As a parent you don’t want your kids to be that different from their peers, to be the potential objects of ridicule or the targets of bullying. At the same time, you don’t want them to sheepishly follow the crowd, bowing to more popular personalities.
So where’s the balance?
In middle age it’s all too easy to forget how hard it was in middle school. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to conform, to be part of this clique or that clan. Kids feel the need to ‘define’ their status, their personal identity vis-à-vis their schoolmates, because kids are led to believe in things being black or white.
Are you a jock or a nerd? A gamer or a glee clubber? As we get older we tend to realize that there are a lot of shades of gray (well, at least 50, anyway), and a person can be complicated and contradictory, containing, as Whitman wrote, ‘multitudes.’ This can be a difficult concept for kids to get their heads around, especially since most of the boys are just trying to figure out how not to pop a boner during PE.
For me, I think it’s about allowing space for your kids to discover their own interests and passions, and make their own choices, without too much parental interference. One of my greatest wishes is for my kids to be really, truly – authentically – themselves, without too much concern about fitting in. It’s a difficult thing for anyone – adult or child – to stay true to their personal values – and yes, we all have different personal values – while risking disapproval, rejection, or exclusion by those around them.
But authenticity is important. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that “a sense of authenticity is accompanied by a multitude of benefits. People who score high on the authenticity profile are also more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies, rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits. They often report having satisfying relationships. They enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, confidence in mastering challenges, and the ability to follow through in pursuing goals.”
I know I cared far too much for far too long about how others perceived me (probably still do), but I’ve gotten better about it. Instead of trying to be cool, how about we just teach our kids how to be kind. It’s really hard to be a jerk to someone who’s simply, sincerely, and consistently kind.
And so I guess that’s what it boils down to for me. Let your kids make their own decisions – even bad ones, guide them as best you can, and teach them to be kind as much as possible.
“To thine own self be true,” advised Polonius, and I think that’s as relevant today as it was in 14th-century Denmark, or Elizabethan England. (And I think Shakespeare probably was. True to himself, that is.)
So to my son D I say, “Don’t put down the book. Don’t ever try to mold your self-image or your self-expression to conform to the people around you. Pursue your own interests and passions, even if they differ from those of your schoolmates, your teachers, or your parents. (Unless it’s like necrophilia or, say, curling, in which case you should seek professional help.) If your hero is some dude who blogs about herping (observing reptiles and amphibians in the wild), then don’t worry that your friends’ heroes are pop stars or athletes. But if at some point your hero is a pop star or athlete, that’s fine too. Do you see what I’m getting at? Be the authentic version of D, the version you truly believe in, and you’ll find that others believe in you too.”