My daughter is approaching her 10th birthday, and as a result, she's become keenly aware of the various social circles at her school. She recently explained to me that there were the Athletes, the Smart Kids, the Kids Who Are Often Overlooked -- as well as, of course, the "Popular Kids." She went on to explain that each of the groups really didn't have time for any of the other groups.
"What makes the Popular Kids popular?" I asked her one day.
"Well, usually if they wear cute, fashionable clothes," she said. "Also, if they're really good-looking."
One of the biggest requests that I've had since writing The Beauty of Different has been to come up with a book to help kids navigate how to see that their different is actually beautiful. I've been very hesitant to do this because (a) I'm certainly not a child psychologist or a parenting expert by any stretch, and (b) in many ways, I feel like the things that I write about in The Beauty of Different -- chiefly about being comfortable in your own skin -- actually are things that are learned through the experience of life. I mean, honestly, when I was a kid, if a grown-up had told me that I just needed to "be myself," and "not care what anyone thinks," I would've thought it had been far too long since that grown-up was a kid herself. I just don't think I would've listened.
And yet, here I am, faced with teaching my almost-10-year-old these very lessons.
So, we sat down and talked. "So, Al," I said. "You know what I think is even better than fitting in with any of those single groups?"
"What's that?" she asked.
"Being liked and respected by all those groups."
"Mom, that doesn't happen," she explained. "I mean, how can all of those people think you're awesome? None of them like each other, and if you don't fit in to one of them, then you're sort of a freak."
I took a deep breath, and I told her how I thought it was possible. Admittedly, I was really sort of making it up as I went along, but the more I thought about it, the more I think made some sense. And since I often think that even as adults, we struggle with how to fit in -- and where we fit in -- I thought I'd share My Guidelines for Originality AND Being Comfortable in Your Own Skin (because I think the trick is to be both at the same time):
• Lead with kindness. I actually try to be very mindful of this -- and I will be the first to tell you that I don't always succeed (my close friends will tell you I've got an ample helping of snark in me). But for the most part, I try really hard to be kind to people I encounter thoughout my day -- and often, the easiest and most powerful way to do this is to look people in the eye and smile at them. I try to do this with everyone -- from friends I run into, to baristas who are giving me my change for my coffee -- everyone. It's surprising how easy it is not to do this -- to simply take your change, and mumble "thanks" for example -- but taking the moment to actually look people in the face when you interact with them, if only for a moment, makes a huge difference.
(For the record, I am not one of those people who think that you should be kind when people are treating you badly -- I don't believe that you should be a doormat, for example. But I do believe that if kindness isn't appropriate, respect always is -- so if, for example, a kid is picking on my daughter, I advise her to say her peace in response with respect, without condescension, escalate with respect if necessary, or simply get herself out of the situation. But never attack, or resort to unkindness.)
• Try to be your best you. This is a lesson in listening to your own conscience, of being really true to yourself: answering the question, "is doing this what I know to be my best?" In my daughter's case, one of the lessons that I'm constantly trying to teach her is that I'm far less concerned with the outcome if I know that she's tried her best. I also tell her that when people seeing her trying her very best, including trying to be the best person she knows she can be, she earns respect -- everything else will be secondary, not just in the eyes of her parents or teachers, but in the eyes of her friends, too (no matter what "group" they're in).
I've found this to be true as a grown-up, as well.
• Self-appoint yourself the Arbiter of of Your Own Cool. This is an incredibly hard thing to do, especially for kids, but for us grown-ups too. But for the most part, doing this requires an honest answer to the following question: "If my friend/this magazine/my coworkers/this commercial had never said X was cool, would I still think X was cool/buy X/wear X/do X?" If the answer is yes, then go for it. Similarly, I ask myself if someone other than me says something isn't cool, would I still think it is? Then again, if the answer is yes, I still go for it.
(Incidentally, for my daughter, we've spoken -- to an age-appropriate extent -- about how subjects like drugs/alcohol/sex or any other sorts of behaviours that involve her ethics and morality are affected by both of these last 2 guidelines. Obviously, at almost-10, even though we've talked about them, drugs, alcohol and sex aren't issues we've actually had to deal with yet. Still, I figure it's never to young to learn that there is no shame in ever trying to take care of yourself and listening to your heart about what's best for yourself and what you feel comfortable with.)
Again, I'm no parenting expert, but I know this is what I try to do for myself, and so I share it with Alex. I also know that I fail a lot -- and I've made it clear to my daughter that I expect there will be many times when she's going to struggle with and or all of these. But experience tells me that the more that I practice the three things above -- the more I'm mindful of these three guidelines -- the more comfortable I am in my skin, and the less concerned I am with what others think of me. And ultimately, I want Alex to feel comfortable in her own skin as well.
Of course, I'm open to all suggestions, and if you have a practice that you think helps you feel comfortable in your own skin, I'd love if you'd share it in the comments, below.
Because, as you know, being almost-10-years-old is tough.