When I was a kid, I was taught that it’s my job to fit in.
I should try to play with other kids. I should be social and polite. I should play with Barbies, not with teenage mutant ninja turtles, and I especially shouldn’t eschew socialization in favor of reading books or playing with my chemistry set. I shouldn’t talk like a book, and I shouldn’t monolog about cloud formations to the first person who mentions the weather. If I did, kids would make fun of me.
I believe, honestly, that the people who taught me these things did so in the hopes that they were doing me a favor. I believe, honestly, that these people remembered the weird kid in their classrooms growing up, and they didn’t want me to get bullied as horribly as they remember that kid getting bullied. So, I believe, honestly, that they had my best interest at heart.
Most of them, anyway. The jury’s still out on my third grade teacher. But that’s beside the point.
There is a problem with what these people taught me. Rather, there is a problem with the message they sent along with their teaching.
Because they always phrased it as, “Don’t ______, kids will make fun.” “Don’t _____, kids will think you’re weird.” “Don’t _____, you’ll get teased.” “Don’t ______, it makes you look strange.”
Do you understand? These people, in their good intentions, placed the onus on me to be accepted, rather than on the other kids not to be bullying jerks. Their “social skills advice” was just victim-blaming in a prettier package.
That’s the implicit messaging with advice phrased in such a way “If not X, then Y” implies that if Y isn’t happening, you’re doing something wrong. After all, if not X, then Y. So long as you follow the advice properly, they say, Y will happen.
Except it doesn’t. Because try as I might (and I did try. I tried and tried and tried until I burned out and couldn’t try anymore, then when I recovered, I’d start trying again), I can’t act normal enough to appear normal. You know those 80s flicks where the weirdo kid is given some lessons in makeup and hair and clothes and instantly becomes popular and everything is happily ever after and an Important Lesson is learned about how
appearance defines your worth you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? I think people who advise trying to fit in more think that those movies actually happen.
But they don’t. What really happens is that the weirdo kid wears the makeup and clothes but is still a weirdo, and the other kids laugh at their attempts at fitting in, and the teachers and parents tell them they just need to try harder. And harder. And harder. And nobody stops for a moment to think, “Hm, maybe we shouldn’t be putting pressure on this kid to fit in. Maybe we should be putting pressure on the other kids not to bully.”
Worse, nobody stops for a moment to think about the message they’re sending to the weirdo kid when they tell them they have to do items A1 through Z150 before they qualify for humane treatment.