Early on, I remember being in new groups and being shooed away to “go play with the kids.” I have memories of not really wanting to play with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, but they would look like they were having fun. So I’d force myself, thinking that I might end up having fun too.
From age 8 to 17, I was the first one on and the last one off the school bus. I’d board close to 6:00 a.m., groggy and not quite warmed up for exciting conversation. I wanted to stare out the window and get lost in my own thoughts. Problem was, social convention dictated that one should spend the entire time socializing. Topics of conversation were usually less than profound – gossip, TV shows the night before, mocking teachers’ unusual quirks – none of which interested me in the least.
But again, I forced myself to participate. This time, it was to avoid being labeled as weird, uncool, or whatever I was avoiding. But I think I knew by then that I wouldn’t be having as much fun as the other passengers.
Beyond age 13 or so, I stopped caring about being cool or popular. I remember thinking that once I entered high school, I could just be the quiet, thoughtful one and it would be okay. If I would have been most content parking myself on a bench with a stack of books, I could do that, right?
Wrong. Instead, I discovered that I was being labeled a new thing – snobby. And that was not okay with me. It wasn’t that I was standing around thinking I was better than everyone, or anyone for that matter. It was more that I wasn’t a giggler, a rumormonger, or a hot new TV series watcher, so I didn’t have much to contribute to most conversations in my circles.
To this day, I loathe small talk. There’s no bigger waste of hot air, in my opinion. Asking questions to learn about a new person is one thing – there’s purpose behind that. But meaningless chit-chat about the weather and whatever sports thing just happened? Torture. But through almost 3 decades of forcing myself to engage in the mundane jibber jabber, I’m as good at it as the next guy. I can even fake being social and chatty. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you need to bust it out, and I can.
Most people open up once they’re comfortable with someone. I appear to be doing the opposite. I’ll say less and listen more. It looks like I’m withdrawing, but it really means I’m comfortable enough to show you me, quiet and all. I’m lucky that my nearest and dearest get it and accept it, even embrace this about me. Only one person I’ve come across in adulthood has expressed discomfort with my silence, but she has her own issues that I couldn’t even begin to help her with, so I’ve got to just shrug it off.
But enough about me. What does this have to do with parenting?
Remembering my own childhood and observing other parents I’m around now, I think kids get undue pressure to be socially “normal,” whatever the heck that means. If a child would rather go off on his own to take apart his toys instead of joining group games, we start throwing around words like withdrawn and we suspect they might need autism testing. Couldn’t he just be a curious tinkerer? Or the girl who would rather hang out at the library than splash at the pool with her friends – what difference does her choice of activity make?
There’s enough pressure for kids to conform to social and societal pressures without parents adding to it. I want my children to know that Mom and Dad would never want them to pretend to be something they’re not. I hope the freedom to be themselves can start in the home, and that they feel free to be themselves in whatever circles they choose. Judgments, criticisms and all.