The following is an excerpt from my new parenting book Teaching Kids to Be Good People. I offer it as a reminder to parents of tweens and teens of how much they need our help and support in becoming their authentic selves.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Our kids are all grown up and living their own lives, and still, my husband David and I walk the darkened streets, checking out the decorations and the trick-or-treaters. David usually wears his multimedia producer costume — jeans, t-shirt, baseball cap. Yes, it's understated, but very convincing. I don't do "understated." This year, I'll 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 asked a bunch of middle schoolers, “How do you know when you’re faking it?” Here's what they said:
- “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 through 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 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, online or off. They show their goodness with equal confidence when no one is watching and when everyone is watching. But more kids need that kind of social courage. Too many teens are peer approval addicts, compulsively doing whatever it takes to fit in, including stuff they’re not particularly proud of. For those middle and high school students, 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 or jealous. By talking 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. By letting our sons and daughters know that they already are “enough” of everything that matters. By reminding them that they’ve got the courage to do the right thing, even when they’re not sure they do.
After my first question to the tweens, I followed up with this: “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 wouldn’t formulate the perfect words to say to those perfect people. I would say exactly how I feel.”
- “I would love it! It would be like a freedom that lets you fly.”
Halloween masks aside, how can we encourage our children to be who they are? What can we parents do, every day, to help our kids fly?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.