"... Everyone else is already taken." - Oscar Wilde
This year, one grandson decided to play lacrosse for his middle school sport. He’s never played before; in fact, he has never played an organized team sport. Luckily, most of the boys on his team are also new to lacrosse, although several have played sports prior to joining the team. He has watched his uncles play soccer and heard the numerous soccer stories we tell with great pride. He has also witnessed his two male cousins, who play baseball and football, get lots of strokes for their achievements. When he was visiting this summer I could tell how excited and proud he was to join the ranks of his sporting relatives. He talked about lacrosse every chance he got, lamented missing some of the practices while visiting in Wisconsin, and expressed his great excitement that he would soon be practicing and playing. He told us about all his equipment and when visiting his cousins found himself with some common ground for discussion with them as they talked their various sports exploits. While we were in a Christmas shop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, he found a rack of lacrosse ornaments and asked if I would buy him the one that had a shield and a lacrosse stick. On the shield was printed "If you can’t play nice – play lacrosse." He loved the tough guy sentiment.
While I naturally am always rooting for my grandkids to play soccer, I quickly realized that each child had to find his or her own path that might not even include any sport. Those who play sports all excel at different sports. My granddaughters have selected dance and horseback riding to express their more active side, but they also are very much into art. It’s a wonderful hodgepodge of interests that gives each of them their own identities. Yet there are still bridges between each that allow for connections with one another’s interests. Why is it important that they be unique? How can we help our children maintain their individuality?
How often do we hear, "All the kids are doing it!"? We recognize that with conformity comes ironically a mix of anonymity and positive peer regard. Fads like loom bracelets and sagging pants make kids feel like they are part of a group, safe from criticism and confident in acceptance. Some things we find benign enough to allow and other things we see as dangerous precedents. When our oldest daughter wanted her ears pierced at age 8, we were hesitant. It was a huge fad at the time and all the "cool" girls had pierced ears. But we also worried that she wasn’t old enough to care for her ears properly or to understand the ramifications of putting a nearly permanent mark on her body. Ultimately, we gave in. She got one ear pierced, screamed and refused to have the other ear done. We actually ended up begging her to get the piercing. Ironic! Our boys both asked for tattoos when in their senior year of high school. Now that’s really permanent! We discussed all the concerns we had and told them they had to wait until they were 18 because we weren’t signing off on the procedure; most importantly, they had to pay for it themselves. They must have been very motivated because they each have a tattoo.
We tried to pick our battles, but at every step we were conscience of the allure of "fitting in" by being as much like everyone else as possible. Shopping at Water Tower Place in Chicago, I witnessed three suburban moms ascending the escalator. They each had brunette blunt-cut hair pulled back in a ponytail, white tuxedo shirt, blue jeans, black ballet slippers, and long mink coats. Triplets couldn’t have been more similar. I realized that the need to fit in doesn’t end when we conquer acne. Who among us has the courage to break away from the herd and go in a different direction? Some might call such actions foolhardy. After all, who wants to live next door to the neighbor with the "prairie" lawn or the fuchsia paint job? Who wants to be that neighbor themselves? Conformity allows us to operate as a society under an umbrella of laws that maintain structure and order.
Yet just this last week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech, which encouraged citizens to strive for a change and to be leaders in a non-violent revolution, which by definition means to break away from conformity. Being unique means thinking for oneself. Being unique can translate into leadership. Being unique frees up our creativity. Being unique takes us outside of the box to new discoveries about ourselves and our environment. Finding a balance between being distinctive and being a conforming member of a group isn’t easy no matter our age. It is usually harder for kids, who don’t have the maturity to react with independence when faced with peer pressure and group dynamics. Kids are willing to make waves, but unfortunately that’s usually with their parents and authorities in order to fight to be an integrated, conforming member of their peer group. Add to the mix a team sport like soccer, where kids wear uniforms, have a prescribed regimen for practices and games, and aren’t generally rewarded for being a renegade — instead, they’re recognized for conformity to the team’s demands. Look at any youth girls’ soccer team, and you’ll observe this level of running with the group. In addition to prescribed uniforms, most young girls attempt to add distinctive elements that only serve to highlight their conformity. Most wear the same headbands, sleeve clips, undershirts (necessary when dealing with the sheerer uniforms), shoelaces, and even similar boots in similar colors. Even as they step outside the standard uniform, they partake in standard behaviors.
Kids on sports teams may also be timid about becoming leaders on their squad, not wanting to draw unwelcomed attention to themselves. We parents have observed the on-field spats that arise when a player attempts to direct the action or make a suggestion. Players become defensive if corrected by a peer and lash out. Most youth players aren’t interested in creating conflict to promote their ideas and stand by their position. There’s always a popularity pecking order, so if a child lower in the order attempts to emerge with some leadership he or she could face censure. Popularity has never been a measure of someone’s ability to be a leader, but it often controls who can step into the role. Players who have strong skills and a well-developed soccer brain may not rise to the level of their abilities simply in order to protect whatever position they presently hold on a team, rather than risk criticism or ridicule.
How do we help our children develop a sense of individuality? Obviously, our own example helps create the backdrop to support this lesson. We need to make clear to our kids why we make the choices we do. In my entire time growing up, my father always bought used cars except once in 1959 when he bought a new Ford Fairlane completely stripped down — no radio and no white walls allowed. So, even when we finally had a new car it didn’t look or drive like a cool car. However, my dad always made it clear why he did this. He wasn’t going to lose 30 percent of the value of his purchase before he even got it home. In his world, cars were not status symbols but a means to get from point A to point B at a minimum of cost and trouble in relative comfort. So while our next-door neighbor bought a Thunderbird, we lived with our Fairlane for 10 years until my dad bought a giant Buick station wagon for a family trip to the East Coast that could accommodate our family of seven and all our gear including tents, sleeping bags and Coleman stoves. Because, naturally, my dad wasn’t going to pay for a hotel room! He was a highly respected, successful dentist and real estate speculator who once sold land to Bill Gates to build his first Microsoft campus. But he said he would let his accomplishments speak for themselves rather than advertise his success with possessions. Naturally, as a teenager I was aghast at his choices. We lived in a really wealthy community and all my friends belonged to the country club, had fancy homes and cars, and went on extravagant vacations. The important fact, which I failed to note at the time, but realize now, was that they were my friends despite my less than glamorous lifestyle.
This bittersweet lesson has certainly helped me be a better parent when it comes to teaching my kids the value of celebrating their unique characteristics. Did my kids want to fit in and follow the group like lemmings over any cliff? Of course they did. But we were able to have good discussions about the wisdom of such blind loyalty. The victories weren’t necessarily often or readily apparent, yet they existed nonetheless. We parents have the opportunity to share with our children the benefits of striking out on their own in some areas. Our younger daughter loved to wear striped shirts with plaid skirts or mix purple with orange leading to some ridicule at school. Eventually, however, she garnered respect for her fearless choices. If we can notice those moments and praise them, we will go a long way to helping our children develop the inner determination to stick with unpopular choices. This could lead to resisting drugs, alcohol and sexual activity. If kids succumb to peer pressure in seemingly innocent situations, they end up being less equipped to resist the bad peer influences. We can discuss with them how they don’t have to be judgmental when they choose to swim outside the main stream. They need to simply point out that certain choices make them uncomfortable, but they don’t expect everyone else to behave like they do. By expressing their position they also often find that other kids have been silently supporting the same position. This enables kids to identify that the perception of what the group wants isn’t always the truth of the matter.
We parents recognize that adapting to the group is part of normal youth development. So we pick our battles when it comes to demanding that our children don’t follow suit. Whenever we put our foot down we need to have a discussion as to why. While it becomes cliché, the truth is that when our offspring say, "all the kids are doing it," we need to focus on the word "all" and point out that it’s just not true. I probably said "our family is different" a gazillion times, and I know most of you have said the same thing in some form an equal number of times. When our kids listen and agree, we need to be quick with our support. Ultimately we aren’t trying to mold our child in our image, but we can hope that they absorb our morals and our vision for their unique development. Oscar Wilde knew about being special with his flamboyant and often unaccepted lifestyle, but he stuck to his image because that gave him peace despite the turmoil. If more of us celebrated the uniqueness of others there would be less bullying and less intolerance. Giving our kids the freedom to express their own distinctiveness is a gift with significant and meaningful ripples.