The downside of teaching kids to fit in

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.

5 thoughts on “The downside of teaching kids to fit in

  1. Aspermama says:

    Your posts on bullying have been really thought-provoking for me. I was very fortunate to have not been bullied myself, but people close to me have, and I don’t want my kids-or any kid-to ever have to go through that.

    As you said, people seem to think that preventing kids from getting bullied is simply a matter of teaching them to fit in, and that fitting in is as simple as following a few rules and changing how you dress. It’s a cheap, easy fix that we use because actually doing something about bullying and changing the culture of the school is just too much work and we don’t really see or understand the long-term impact of constantly telling people that they need to be something they’re not simply to be treated with a basic level of respect.

    Granted, when I look back on my high school years I see things I did that alienated my classmates a bit and I sometimes wish that someone would have told me to try harder to wear nice clothes and develop some social skills and fit in instead of telling me to just be myself. But that’s something we should tell kids when they express a genuine desire to fit in, not when they’re being mistreated. (And on the other hand, I’m trying to do some of that stuff now, and I think I still just look like I’m trying too hard and not getting it, so maybe that wouldn’t have worked anyway, I don’t know.)

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yeah, definitely. I also think anything on how to help kids deal with mistreatment should be focused on it not being their fault that someone else is mistreating them. And it should also be taught that if they mistreat the other person in retaliation, while it’s understandable that they’re angry, it’s not okay to bully. That someone bullies you doesn’t make it okay to bully in return. Self-defense is different from bullying. Punching the ringleader of a gang that’s about to beat you up so you have room to run away is okay because you don’t have any other viable alternative at that point. On the other hand, sneaking into the locker room during the ring leader’s sports practice to soak their clothes in paint in retaliation for them tearing your book up is not okay. Both of which I did as a teen, I admit (it was a water-based paint, at least, so xe could wash it off, but I’m still not proud of the decision. I’m less unhappy with it than I would be if I’d chosen something staining, though).

      I should perhaps do a post on what social norms I think are good to teach. Stuff like nonviolent conflict resolution, how to stand up for oneself, when to walk away from a conflict, basic etiquette like please and thankyou and not interrupting unless it’s an emergency, very basic fashion stuff like what colors work well together vs which ones cause eye-bleeding contrast (I would’ve appreciated not having a years’ worth of photos of me in various hi-lighter colored tops with different hi-litgher colored pants and shoes of a different color still… in the early 00s) are all good to teach, for example. I think with all the posts on what not to do it might come off like I’m saying don’t do anything, which isn’t so much what I’m getting at. Just that a lot of things well-meaning people do to try to help kids out is counter-productive.

      The more I think about it, the more I think it’s the attitude these things are taught with more than what’s taught that’s the problem. There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with teaching someone conversation skills, for example. Where it goes wrong is when it changes from a focus of “this will help you learn stuff from other people and will help prevent hurting their feelings by seeming like you don’t care about what they think” to “this will help you fit in and be normal.” When the goal changes from “help Person handle the world effectively” to “help Person look normal” is when it’s a problem. Fitting in shouldn’t be the focus. More effective interaction and/or helping the kid to be the best them possible should be the focus. Don’t make the kid into a second-rate knockoff “normal” kid. Help the kid become a first-rate weirdo – because there’s nothing wrong with being weird. Where the universe is weird is where it’s interesting.

  2. […] realize that with all my focus on what not to do, what doesn’t work, how taking situations at face value isn’t necessarily a good idea […]

  3. […] for the record: when I talk about how being pressured to fit in hurt me, or how my parents often missed critical context to situations, or whatever else have you, I […]

  4. FlutistPride says:

    “Don’t be bullied.” implies a social “food chain.” It encourages bullying by over-cultivating survival instincts. The fight to reach the top of the food chain results in a toxic environment. “Don’t bully” fosters peace and civilization as well as respect for self and others. It teaches virtue and honor, even when it is hard to show it. The things that are being taught to kids reflect the world we hope to create.

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