Should You Advise Your Outsider to Try to Fit In?

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Flying the geek flag high

Generally, geeks are not popular kids.   The label, when used in a school setting, clarifies the dichotomy between the athletic clique and the nerdy clique.

While some geeks fly their flag proudly, and feel confident moving through life as a unique individual, others may feel left out, or even purposely shunned. When your child comes to you sadly, reporting that the “cool kids” have been getting up and moving to another table in the lunchroom when he sits down, your heart will break and your first instinct will be to punch someone, but then what?

What advice should you give your outsider, if he isn’t happy with his role? Do you double down on your pro-geek stance, and counsel him to be proud of his distinctive personality and interests? Or do you melt at his desire to fit in and suggest ways he can act differently in the hope that those cool kids will accept him?

These two opposing schools of thought both grow from a parent’s wish for his child to be happy and surrounded by love. Is it better in the long run for our children to work toward the acceptance of others, or to learn to accept themselves? Let’s look at both sides of the debate.

If you have been raising a geek for years, you already know that your child acts a bit differently than her peers. She may spend more time at solitary activities, use different vocabulary, miss social cues, or simply be unaware that some things (clothes, phrases, activities, etc.) are seen as “popular” while other things are viewed as “lame.”

In her early years, when your job entailed a much higher percentage of time spent correcting her behavior, it was natural to suggest alternative ways to act (“Use your words, please.”) Now that she’s older, recommending adjustments is no longer a daily occurrence, but the words may still come easily to you. “Don’t forget to look people in the eye when you talk to them.” But what message are you sending? Is your child hearing, “I don’t love you the way you are”? Is the goal of blending in with the popular kids worth the potential harm to your child’s self esteem? Or will the acceptance itself improve her confidence?

On the other hand, you might decide that asking your child to modify her behavior is akin to asking her to change her essential self. To focus too narrowly on mimicking the popular kids runs a high risk that she loses her curiosity, enthusiasm and joy. Why would we want our children to mold themselves into the image of other people? Diversity and variety are what make our world dynamic and interesting.

How do you choose the right path? You might have first-hand experience as an outsider (geekiness does tend to run in families). Looking back, perhaps you wish that things had un-spooled differently. Through the lens of time, maybe you feel a bit wistful that your school experience didn’t mirror the typical “all-American” lifestyle popularized in books and movies.   Maybe you wish that your child wouldn’t have to deal with the difficulties that you did. It may seem like a gift that you can point your child in a different direction; a do-over, a few decades later.

What is more important – acceptance or authenticity? We all need to learn to get along with different types of people. Isn’t this situation just an extension of learning to be a functioning adult? It may feel as though making a few behavioral adjustments is preferable to loneliness, but at what cost? Will your child find himself in an existential crisis as an adult, having never felt he was allowed to follow his own path?

Clearly, there are solid arguments to be made on both sides of the debate, and your child’s specific circumstances will inform the decision.  However, the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side” was coined for a reason. It’s fairly likely that the acceptance you or your child covet may not be the fantastic finish that you imagine. Be sure you are examining all the evidence clearly, and not through the misty glasses of sentimentality.

Parenting is tough, intense, challenging, and demanding. What would you do?

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