Not long ago I was having beers and spaetzle with a friend at a dingy Manhattan bar. We were there to commiserate about work and talk strategy for an upcoming business trip. The trip meant that once again, she would have to hand her son over to her parents for a few days. At just three years of age, he was already well-versed in the art of video chatting. When she told me this, she sighed and confessed, “I think I’m raising a weird kid.”
I’ve heard this from a lot of my friends lately. It seems like “raising a weird kid” is the new euphemism for “bad parent.” If you aren’t convinced, just look at the debate over Shiloh Pitt-Jolie’s cross-dressing. Most of the vitriol isn’t about her gender-bending sartorial preferences (although, sadly, some of it is); it’s more about whether Brangelina should allow it in the first place. Do they risk their oddball child turning into an oddball adult by letting her dress as a boy? My friends share these concerns about their own parenting. They worry, “Will the odd things I let them do ruin them for life?”
Fortunately, I’m in a position to reassure them. Each time one of my parent friends voices their weird kid/bad parent concerns to me, I trot out my own childhood, which was a complete circus. Literally.
At less than a year old, I could be found dressed in a tiny clown costume, balancing on my father’s palm as a large crowd in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor circle around. My mother collected small bills from the audience in an upside down hat. Eventually Baltimore cracked down on the city’s street performers, and my parents were forced to find another source of income. They did what any reasonable, rational parent with an abundance of circus skills would do – they bought a VW bus, researched early American folk songs, dreamed up a few new magic tricks and took to the road, kids in tow, to revive vaudeville.
From that point on, much of my youth was spent crammed into the back of the bus, traversing the east coast with my family’s travelling show. For us, learning to juggle was both a family rite of passage and a necessity. So was learning to walk a tight rope, balance on stilts and ride a unicycle (when the VW van broke down, we used the unicycles to get to school). We performed for anyone who would have us – renaissance fairs, schools, corporate picnics. We often joined forces with other performers, collaborating on stunts and pooling resources. As a result, one of my early crushes was on a young contortionist studying mime under my mother. All of this was back in the early eighties – before shows like Cirque du Soleil and America’s Got Talent brought juggling to the masses and every hippie discovered the joys of six-foot-high unicycles. And yet we weren’t total outcasts. We were just the “strange family” in a very small, conservative town – when we were in town at all.
It’s no surprise that this kind of upbringing resulted in us kids turning out, well, weird. At age 4, my brother (now an accomplished architect) once played “dog” for nearly six months. Rather than prohibit this behavior, my parents bought him a leash, which he wore everywhere. Around the same age, my sister also struggled with an early identity crisis and was fond of donning different personalities (with corresponding costumes). Her favorite alternate persona was “Jack, The Lost Little Boy” who wore cowboy boots and a western shirt and, much like Huck Finn, was always having adventures and getting into trouble. Was it odd? Definitely. But thankfully, in the highly creative world of performers in which we grew up, imagination was an asset. Our off-the-wall personalities were incorporated into the already off-the-wall show. Inspired by my brother’s performance, my parents incorporated an actual canine – Waggs upstaged us all – and my sister and I played lost little orphan characters each night.
When the show finally disbanded and my siblings and I began attending school regularly and making friends with people whose parent’s weren’t clowns, the three of us found that our ability to be weird still worked in our favor. We weren’t afraid to try out new ideas in school, and this helped in every subject, not just the obviously creative ones. We were quicker to adapt to new situations and scenarios than other kids. We knew how to play constructively. Plus, we could juggle – really, really well. Which our peers thought was fantastic.
As I tell my friends, kids are weird – even if you don’t have them video chatting before age 3 or let them cross-dress. They observe things we’ve forgotten to see through that imagination lens that gets dirtier and more obstructed as we age. They break rules and conventions in ways that make us uncomfortable because we’ve become accustomed to rules and conventions. And that’s kind of what makes kids great. The more it’s encouraged, the better. I’m not saying endanger your kids (Smoking Baby is weird too, but not in a good way). But the weird and kooky things parents subject their kids to (or allow them to do) are the life-experience equivalent of naked baby photos. Yes, they can be embarrassing (try explaining as a woman that your father’s dream for you was to be a sword swallower and see what kind of reaction you get) but it’s also the one time in their lives when being absolutely off-your-rocker-strange is going to be acceptable. Rather than leaving your kids dysfunctional and mal-adjusted, eccentric origins and behavior are more likely to make them intriguing, not to mention flexible and creative.
And I have one more defense of strangeness: all that weirdness, everything you think you’re doing wrong (and believe me, my parents thought they messed up a lot), could end up providing a bond between you and your kids and between them and their siblings. This is the stuff that will provide the bulk of the comedy at the dinner table when they grow older. I know it has for my family, and I’m sure it’s going to for the Pitt-Jolies. What makes us close is this shared history of weirdness. We laugh about it until we’re unable to speak. And for me, that “can’t speak” moment is the best proof that, weirdly, we turned out all right.