UPDATE (October 2013): This essay is included in my book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People. (Electric Eggplant, 2012)
I love Halloween. Always have. Even though our kids don’t live here any more, David and I still trawl the neighborhood, checking out trick-or-treaters and home makeovers. David usually wears his multimedia producer costume— understated, but totally convincing. Typically I pull out all the stops and morph into a mime with whiteface, red-bow lips, massive amounts of black eyeliner, and a pink tutu on my head.
My senior year in high school I was voted Class Actress, so I fully appreciate the fascination with taking on a new persona and milking it for all it’s worth. The irony isn’t lost on me that this Great Pretender has built a career exploring the MO of kids who constantly fake it by pretending to be someone they’re not, just to get other kids to like them.
I recently emailed a bunch of middle and high school students and asked: “How do you know when you’re faking it?” Here are some answers:
- “I have a feeling of guilt and hatred for myself. I feel like I’m a wimp for not speaking the truth.”
- “It’s hard for me to really shine thru and show people who I am because I am always worried about impressing them. I hate it when I act this way.”
- “I feel like a fraud in my own body. I feel betrayed by myself because I’m not showing everyone who I am and it hurts because I don’t know if they will like me for who I am.”
- “I get a nagging feeling tugging at the back of my brain, telling me ‘Don’t do this, you know this isn’t you.’”
- “Whenever I’m putting on ‘my mask,’ I feel sort of terrible and messy inside, like a lot of spaghetti, all tangled up. I feel almost sick to my stomach and a little anxious, but I still do it to impress others. But it never feels quite right. I do it because I feel like I’m not good enough sometimes.”
Their responses saddened me. We want our kids to be happy and self-assured. We want them to be courageous enough to drop the mask and confidently be themselves. But that’s a huge challenge when they’re unwilling to make a move without first checking out what everyone else is doing. If everyone else is being unkind, our children need tremendous strength of character not to join the hating party. Because the price of social poker is so very high, not many of them are willing to gamble.
Of course some kids embrace their authentic self and don’t hesitate to do the right thing. They show their goodness with equal confidence when no one is watching and when everyone is watching. But more kids need that kind of courage. Too many of them are Peer Approval Addicts, compulsively doing whatever it takes to fit in, including stuff they’re not proud of. For these children, everyday is Halloween, only they don’t get candy—just the hollow feeling of wimping out and not being “good enough” without their mask.
How can we help our kids resist conforming to negative peer behavior? By modeling and reinforcing, early and often, what authenticity looks like. By teaching that our choices matter and everyone deserves respect even when we’re feeling angry with them. Let’s talk about people in the news, characters in books, movies, TV shows, and anyone we know who did the right thing despite the risk that friends might not approve. Let our sons and daughters know that they already are “enough” of everything that matters. Remind them that they’ve got the courage to do the right thing, even when they’re not sure they do.
A week after my initial survey question, I followed up with this one: “How would your life be different if you didn’t have to worry what other people think?” Here’s what they said:
- “I’d probably share with people that ‘Hey, being yourself is cool, and if you can’t do this now… why not?’”
- “I would not spend a lot of money or do stupid things just to fit in.”
- “I would try out for football with the boys.”
- “I’d go to school in costume every day, dressed as a medieval knight, an astronaut, a soldier, or something totally new!”
- “I wouldn’t formulate the perfect words to say to those perfect people. I would say exactly how I feel.”
- “I would eat a cheesecake and wear a flannel vest. Woah! That would be a pretty darn cool world!”
- “I would love it! It would be like a freedom that lets you fly and soar.”
I’ve got no guaranteed tip sheet for you at this point, just a simple question: As a parent and a teacher, what could you do, today and every day, to help your kids fly and soar?