Hello Carolyn: I wonder how to help my children embrace their own likes and dislikes without succumbing to pressures from peers.
I am a big advocate for letting them express themselves, as long as it is in a safe and thoughtful way. To give an example, I was painting my daughter’s nails and my 7-year-old son wanted to join in on the experience. It doesn’t bother me that he has his nails painted but I am not blind to how other kids may react. I explained to him that I love that he wants to express himself this way but that he may experience a different reaction when he goes to school. He was seemingly unfazed by this, so we compromised and did his pinkie nails. Sure enough, the next day he comes home upset and demands that we take the polish off.
How do we balance these types of situations knowing we can’t control the reactions of the people around us? I don’t want to compromise my acceptance of how he wants to present himself but it also seems cruel to put him in scenarios that I know can end unfavorably.
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You already did what I would have advised, so thank you for saving me all that typing. Our approach with our kids was (is) to say we had no problem ourselves with nail-painting or whatever else, but we warned them more bluntly: Instead of, “You may experience a different reaction in school,” we say outright they might get picked on for it. And then we ask specifically: “Are you ready to take that on? If so, then we’ll support you.” It’s informed consent for the playground set.
Your version and mine, tomayto-tomahto, but kids can be so literal that I prefer explicit statements of risk.
We diverge on one point, though, and it’s an important one to wrestle with. I don’t think self-expression in general can be entirely “safe.” The risk is built into the whole concept: To express ourselves is to take who we are inside and to put it on the outside for public consumption. The very definition of vulnerability, no?
There are of course huge payoffs for allowing ourselves to be vulnerable: Intimacy, in a word, since you can’t achieve it being insincere or walled off. But we can’t control even how carefully chosen audiences will respond.
So while you as a parent can, and apparently do, create a home where children are as safe as possible to express themselves, there is no complete safety; feelings can always get hurt.
And the safety drop-off from a supportive home environment to a playground one is often steep, the noble efforts by many communities notwithstanding.
That means your job isn’t to promote the emotional unicorn of “safe” self-expression, but instead self-expression that accounts for the inherent risk. The term “cost-benefit analysis” isn’t construction-papered onto many bulletin boards, but schoolchildren are subconsciously making such analyses with almost their every choice, from sitting quietly through a lesson versus speaking out of turn, to shoving the kid who mouths off versus walking away.
Thoughtful parents can guide children toward higher-payoff, conscious decisions instead of reflexive ones. And by loving and accepting them for who they are, they can strengthen kids to withstand the costs they inevitably pay.
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