Three's A'loud

Fitting in or standing out

First day of school and my nerves are shot. My eldest is moving on to grade two. Not too worried there. Same school, same friends – she will be okay. Her baby brother is moving onto a bigger class in his crèche. Not too worried about him either. Same school, same teacher – he will be okay. The reason I have been lying awake for the past week is all about my 5-year old and her first day in Grade R (the year preceding first grade, to my international readers.) She could have attended grade R in her crèche but after weeks of deliberation we decided to send her to the grade R class in the school she will be starting grade 1 next year. A real school, not a crèche. All grown up. No nap time.

The reason for my concern, however, might be a bit different from what you might expect. I am not worried about her making friends. I am not worried about her being scared and lonely. I am not worried about how she will fit in… I am sick to my stomach at the thought of them making her fit in.

My middle child has never suffered from what some might call “typical middle child” behaviour. She is a real force of nature. Always laughing and pulling silly faces. Singing and telling stories. Also, you can never quite figure out whether she is walking or dancing. To her it is pretty much one and the same. It doesn’t matter how many times a day I brush and tie her hair, somehow it is always all over the place in a curly golden storm. She wears huge beautiful bright frilly princess dresses everywhere. To parties. To crèche. To bed. And then there are the shoes. I am convinced that she got up and started walking at nine-and-a-half months just so that she could wear shoes. Mostly with heals. Which brings me back to her first day at school. The grade R class is still exempt from uniforms and are allowed to wear their own clothes to school. I am embarrassed to say that I was not a good mommy on this particular day. I put out a nice “safe” denim jean with pink flowers and a matching pink shirt. Pretty, but standard. Ready to fit in. But madam had other plans. This was an important day. Important enough for the blue velvety princess dress with yellow frills. Important enough for her long tights with multi-coloured balloons. Important enough for the blue plastic Frozen high heels she recently convinced her grandfather to buy with a lot of hugs and eyelash-fluttering. I tried to suggest otherwise. I offered several alternative options. But in my defence, I didn’t force her into anything. When it was clear that she felt beautiful I left it at that. And off she went…

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want her to fit in. I don’t want her to conform. For as Hermann Hesse wrote in the late 19th century: "Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again."

But I am afraid that the world might think otherwise. I am worried about cruel little girls who team up against someone who is different. I am worried about bullies trying to bring her down to their level. In my experience people are generally scared of things that are different, things that they don’t understand.

In an article titled “Fitting in or standing out” published in Social, Psychological and Personality Science, researchers found that there has been a significant move towards individualism in recent decades. Based on the use of common names versus the rise in unusual names, they found that society had a growing interest in uniqueness between 1880 and 1920. Interestingly, between 1920 and 1949 there was a slight drop in this tendency before it really gained momentum from the 1950’s onward. We are lucky to live in a time where “being different” is generally celebrated, but the memo might not have yet reached millions of scared adolescents in schools all over the world.

To children ‘fitting in or standing out’ can have lasting repercussions way past their school years, confirms Robert Crosnoe in his book with the same title. He says that we often refer to kids struggling to fit in as “just a phase” and “everybody goes through that” but to these kids it impacts their entire being. We as parents therefore need to ensure they grow up in a warm nurturing environment where their individuality is celebrated but they are also encouraged to fit in with society’s norms at least to a certain extent.

Conforming on some levels is not a bad thing, agrees Chuck Gallozzi in this article on individuality and conformity (from which I also borrowed a few brilliant quotes to follow) He notes:

“The truth is; individuality and conformity are merely different sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have conformity unless there are individuals to conform. And we cannot have individuality unless there is conformity to break free of. Although conformity can be interpreted as a loss of freedom, without it society would be reduced to chaos.”

So back to me, my family and the first day of school. My nerves are shot. My eldest is moving on to grade two. Not too worried there. Her baby brother is moving onto a bigger class in his crèche. Not too worried about him either. The reason I have been lying awake for the past week is all about my 5-year old and her first day in Grade R. Turns out it was all unnecessary. She waltzed through those school gates like the property belonged to her… and she skipped right out the gate in the same manner that afternoon. “What a WONDERFUL day!” she gushed. Her teacher is nice, there’s a really high swing and two friends wants to borrow her dress. She was still recounting all her exciting adventures as she got into bed that evening with the white and gold bridesmaid’s dress she wore to my sisters wedding last year.

She was still recounting all her exciting adventures as she started getting dressed for school three days later. It was Friday and it was the school’s internal athletics day. Everyone has to wear the school’s sports wear: a green shirt and green shorts. All except one. All of a sudden the green outfit that she wore every day for a week during the holidays looked “funny” on her. Instead she settled for the green shirt with her full length leopard print leggings. Yes, really. And then, just when I started thinking it might be okay; she comes out of her room with an ankle-length black winter coat over the green shirt. Right in the middle of the hottest summer of the 21st century. On sports day. I made a terrible judgement call and decided not to make a fuss. After all, once we got in the car, there was no way it would last the 10 minute ride to school. She will take it off real quick and there will be no harm done. You would think I’d know my child better by now. As she got out of the car with the golden curly stormy hair all over the place and the black coat and leopard print leggings I cringed. I also saw the mommy in the car next to us cringe. I also saw the teacher helping them across the street cringe. But then something strange happened. I heard a friend calling out her name and shouting “Wow! How beautiful you look!” another one came over: “Amazing outfit! May I borrow your leggings tomorrow?” and I realised that it is not children that are cruel, but adults. We were raised at a time where it was generally frowned upon to stand out. Where you had to fit in or… go play somewhere else. Luckily it looks like our exposure to more trends, more world news and more alternative lifestyles has increased our acceptance of individuality and even a bit of eccentricity.

Where to draw the line with our children between conformity and individuality? That question I cannot answer for you. It is something I am still figuring out and I can tell you the line is shifting dramatically from one day to the next. Maybe we should not worry about getting our children to fit in but instead teach them – by words and by example – not to judge those who stand out. I can also offer you this piece of wisdom from Nietzsche:

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

My princess will have to conform a little bit along the way. Afterall, basic good manners can be seen as “conforming” to society’s rules. But I will continue encouraging her to be herself. And she can choose her own outfits. As plain or as crazy as she wants.

I leave you with a beautiful quote from Chuck Galozi:

“We owe all progress, discoveries, and breakthroughs to those few men and women who had the courage to be different. Their differences made all the difference to the world. Our responsibility is no less than to follow their example.”

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