489. Fitting In

One of the major messages parents and teachers give children is that fitting in is not important – that what’s important is being true to yourself. I think that’s a good and important message, and I’m one of the parents and teachers who deliver it. Sometimes my earnest sermons on personal integrity impress children just the way I want them to; children decide to let their consciences be their guides, and I end up proud of them for resisting temptations to follow the crowd.
But sometimes what I say about this kind of issue doesn’t sound as important to children as other things they hear and think. They decide that they’ll do what “everyone else” is doing – that I just don’t understand. If I understood, I wouldn’t try to get them to say and do things that would make them social outcasts. If I weren’t so stuck in my high-fallutin’ ways, I’d realize that there are certain things you “have to” do if you don’t want to be a total nerd.
I think there were things I used to do to fit in, and I’m sure there still are, but what I remember best are the ways I stood out, both because of my convictions and because I didn’t know how to fit in. I’ve never changed my hairstyle – not once in my life (unless you count the time I shaved off all my hair to see if I’d look like Yul Brynner) – because I’ve thought that would be a superficial thing to do. That policy doesn’t rank up there with Thoreau’s civil disobedience, or Joan of Arc’s martyrdom, but from my point of view, it showed that I had character, and still do.
But I also remember little ways I did try to fit in. Once, I bought a white sweater because “everyone else” seemed to be doing it. I wore it to school for a long time before I learned that it was a “letter sweater” – that I wasn’t supposed to wear it until I’d earned a letter. And the only way to do that was to participate in sports after school – something I never did. For one reason or another, I never felt that I fit in.
And so I never really understood children’s and adolescents’ obsession with fitting in. I saw it as a character flaw, and tried to reform them – give them the courage to be nerds. So far, I’ve written a lot about what I think I’ve done well during my teaching and parenting career, but this is an area where I think I could have done better, and now I intend to.
Not that I’m going to change my hairstyle; I have always parted it on the right, and had it cut the same way, and I think I always will. Because of habit, not moral or political conviction. But I’m going to stop trying to convince children to constantly flaunt their individuality. If they want to make changes in their personal styles so that they’ll be more like “everybody else,” I’ll try to be a little more understanding. Personal integrity doesn’t have to be reflected in one’s choice of clothing or hairstyle.

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