Different is the label most often applied to a gifted student… both by others and by themselves. An important distinction to be made here is the difference between different and disrespectful. When your different steps all over another’s rights, it’s not okay. But, if your different does not impede others’ progress, then what’s the problem with different? Evidently plenty.
This month’s inauguration has been a reminder that people do not like different. I am not talking politics here, just tendencies. Going back several years, the pattern has been that one party has control, and when the other party gains control, the outgoing party cries foul. Everybody is “afraid” of what the new guy might do. Then at re-election time, several voters find themselves voting for the incumbent (even if it’s across party lines) because, again, the new guy might change things. He might be different.
If adults can be that fearful of different, why do we expect our children to just accept it as a way of life? I have news for you… they don’t. Students who are different get those differences pointed out to them daily. So how can you raise your child to be unique (the encouraging word we use in place of different) and still fit in socially? I think there are four key factors.
First, make sure that the child is choosing the unique qualities. If a child does not own what is different about him, he cannot defend it. For example, if you think your daughter should wear business pantsuits to school so that she will take the “job” seriously, she is going to suffer ridicule. Even the youngest of students will call her out on this wardrobe choice. I have, however, had students at this school who have chosen to wear their business suits (which they wear for speech competitions) to school, and they have successfully defended their rights to dress professionally.
Second, give your child the tools to handle the occasional ribbing for being different. The best comeback I’ve ever heard from a teen who was being ribbed about his virginity was, “I have something you’ll never have again.” Boom! The battle hymn of today’s youth is “let me be me.” There isn’t a reason in the world (unless the difference is due to illegal activity or unhygienic practices) that your child shouldn’t have the necessary rhetoric ready to defend his choices.
Third, make sure your child is allowing others to be different. This is where many teens fail. They want the right to be different themselves, but they are unwilling to let anyone else do the same. I encourage students to be a “character collector.” Let me explain. There are so many different personalities out there. I tell kids not to surround themselves with people who let others determine how they should dress or act or anything else. Instead, they should be on the lookout for those who think for themselves. These are the interesting people.
Lastly, equip your child to be able to stop a different behavior at any time she would like. This sounds easy, but I myself have trouble with this one. For instance, I stop at Sonic every morning to get a Route 44 Diet Coke. At one point, someone convicted me (briefly) to stop drinking Diet Coke. All I was worried about were the waitresses who might think they did something wrong when I quit coming! I have 76 pairs of Converse tennis shoes. I started collecting them as a way to identify with students. After all, I was the principal and I taught English. I needed some way to still be “cool”! When my teens began promoting “A Day without Shoes” to help our kids become aware of children all over the world who have no shoes, I became very convicted about my collection. I don’t buy Converse shoes anymore, but I still wear them because the kids like to compare Chucks with me. I struggle with stopping what I began.
I know the world is on edge about the differences of our current president. But, I also know that during my college years, a young singer by the name of Madonna was despised by every mother in America. Yet, yesterday, I watched her address a nation of women’s rights protestors and be cheered enthusiastically. What’s different? She is. We are.
I remain hopefully optimistic. Different is neither good nor bad. It’s just… different.