Different is not wrong
By Lacy Heinz
There is a painful time in every person’s life that generally involves not having the “right” brand of jeans, a giant pimple on a very prominent facial area, secret crying while listening to power ballads and painful disagreements about how a parent “just really doesn’t understand.”
For me, the majority of these moments occurred from ages 11 to 13 when sixth grade stole me away from my friendly, rural elementary school and deposited me, shell-shocked, in the midst of an adolescent nightmare called middle school.
It was right down the street, but felt like a different world. I still get an achy pit in my stomach thinking about how young I felt compared to some of these new acquaintances. They watched MTV, bought all of their clothes from fancy parts of the mall and had these really giant bangs that involved both a curling iron and hairspray – neither of which I was allowed to touch at my house.
I still liked my pink cat sweatshirt and embroidered jeans, but it soon became clear that they were going to have to go in the closet indefinitely if I was going to fit in. And I desperately wanted to fit in. And, if at all possible, to be “cool.”
Long story short, it didn’t work out. My parents refused to buy me the “right” jeans. I just got more pimples and then added braces to the mix.
And the bottom line is, by nature, I’m not really cool. I am a lot of things – silly, daring, reasonably intelligent, dramatic, engaged with the world – but the social norm of cool I am not. (I definitely was not during middle school.)
And for all of my efforts, I think all I did was alienate my lifelong friends who could not understand my sudden distance. I certainly made no in-roads with the “cool kids,” who were not mean, thankfully, but remained aloof and continued to do new and completely forbidden things like use tanning booths, drink alcohol and sneak out.
In the end, say somewhere around 8th or 9th grade, there was a moment where I found peace with myself and began searching for and reconnecting with people with similar values and interests. High school proceeded with its highs and lows, but without major incident.
I guess the pain and confusion of adolescence is a formative rite of passage, but I would spare my children some of it if I could.
Is this why so many people are home schooling? As I write this, I just finished eating lunch at West Valley Park with my toddlers. While eating, we watched the local home school social group do these amazing tactical maneuvers with replica swords, maces and shields. Kids of all ages running through the grass like veritable Bravehearts! Yaaaa, for the homeland! They seemed completely unselfconscious —which felt RIGHT to me. Kids should be able to do what inspires them without ridicule. Weaponry aside, I’m not sure that caliber of imaginative play would be accepted in a traditional school, which is a shame.
But as wonderful as it was to observe that group today, I don’t think I am organized enough to home school, so I’m going to have to leave the technical part of educating my children to the professionals. Plus, I like the idea of my children interacting with a wide variety of kids from different backgrounds. (That’s real life!) But the sheer amount of noise, television, Internet and pop culture being thrown at young people today makes me fear for their individuality. Our children are being sold an image of cool — now more than ever. Are our children going to be able to realize the fallacy of “cool” if it is so deeply entrenched in our culture? How will they find their way out of that ugly middle school maze? The way out that ends with a measure of peace and acceptance?
I do not have the answer, but I believe there is some wisdom in the statement, “Different does not mean wrong.” I love that my almost 3-year-old just asked to have a “pirate” party for her birthday, when many of her friends would choose “princess.” Don’t get me wrong, she likes her pink shoes and spends a fair amount of time dressing up in a tutu, but she’s starting to have preferences. I can’t help but applaud this short trip from the beaten path. I want her to enjoy all that life has to offer and not feel constrained by the latest fad.
And in life, children – well, all of us really – want to belong to a community. They want to play with other kids, trust them with their secrets and not feel ashamed by their interests and abilities. Differences discovered during play can catch kids off guard. They live in a black and white world of very specific rules where they are told “never” to pick their nose in public and “always” hold Mommy’s hand. But, as adults, we should know that there is not one right way to do everything. There’s a lot of gray out there.
And in our parenting role, we can teach our children from a tender age that we love THEM. We love their differences. Our world would be boring without variety, but especially boring if our children were all the same. (Or our friends.)
After all, what would we discuss over coffee?
* Lacy Heinz is a Mom with a capital M who loves to read, root for the Oregon Ducks, and do a little legal work when time and preschoolers permit.
Filed under Featured Stories, From the Mag