Recently, my youngest was sitting behind me on the bleachers during his sister’s basketball game. Next to him were all his friends, who were waiting for their own chance to play. Once it was their turn, they each rose to their feet and headed onto the court. But my son didn’t get up once; he just sat there by himself, watching everyone else.
All of his friends play basketball, surely he must feel left out, I thought to myself, before turning to ask him that very question.
“Don’t you wish you played, Jack?” I asked. “Do you feel left out?”
“No, why would I feel bad? I don’t like basketball,” he told me, rather matter-of-factly.
And that was all I needed to know. He said it with confidence; there was no a doubt in his mind or longing in his soul to do things just because all the other kids were doing it. But it wasn’t until that very moment when I realized the fact that he doesn’t conform is actually a good thing. He doesn’t need me to make sure he isn’t missing out. He knows what he wants.
It has never been my intention (or most parents’, I think) to raise a follower. I want my son to have his own voice, to feel like he has the ability to be a leader when he wants to, join in when he wants to, and have the courage to walk away from something that doesn’t serve him. (Well, unless it involves school, brushing his teeth, and all the other rule-following that 10-year-olds must comply to.) But that’s easier said than done. Following the crowd and sticking to convention is how most of us typically survive middle school. It’s par for the course, right?
Apparently, not for my kid. If he doesn’t want to do some sort of extra-curricular activity or play something at recess, he doesn’t. It doesn’t leave him feeling left out, he’s just as happy to do something else, even if it is by himself.
But that’s not all. He doesn’t follow trends, either. If all his friends are doing something he’s just not that into, he has no problem skipping out or playing solo. It doesn’t seem to faze him one bit. He simply prefers to follow his own inner-voice, even if it isn’t the “cool” thing to do.
Oh, and he doesn’t seem to care what he wears. Like, at all.
Yes, sometimes this is hard to take when we’re going somewhere and I need him to look presentable, but it works out pretty sweet for me when it comes to buying clothes. He couldn’t care less about which brand he gets. He doesn’t mind the hand-me-downs. He wears what he has, is very low maintenance, and somehow — even at 10 — has the presence of mind to know that the way you look and the things you wear on your body do not define you. The way he feels around you is what he pays attention to.
Of course, I realize that someday this all may change. That impenetrable confidence he exudes right now may somehow get zapped away little by little as adulthood sets in, and the world makes him feel pressured into being a certain person or looking a certain way. But I pray that he never succumbs to it; I hope against hope that he drowns out the noise on those harder days, when a longing to be part of a certain group or crowd may prove strong.
But for now, I have found great comfort in watching my son become autonomous, learning to trust himself, and find his own identity without following. And I can only hope it will be a habit he’ll continue for the rest of his life.
Because from where I sit, not conforming has made his friendships just as strong as they would be if he did go along with the crowd. And ironically, I think the reason he’s so well liked and accepted by his peers is thanks to that very same confidence and refusal to conform.
If somebody in class doesn’t like him, he shrugs his shoulders and gets on with his day — he isn’t willing to alter himself just to get a few more friends out of the deal, and for that, I’m so proud. He would rather stay home and have a grilled cheese and put Mentos in Diet Coke and watch it explode than go to some crazy romper room for his birthday, like all the other kids his age.
And that’s cool with me, too.
Because seeing my son do his own thing inspires me to break the mold a little myself — something it’s taken me years to become comfortable with. As a child, I desperately wanted to fit in. If somebody had a new pair of expensive brand name jeans, I just had to have them too. (Even if I liked some generic pair better.) It was scary not to fit into a box, in the same way others did. But as I got older, I soon learned one of the many unspoken perks that comes with age: We give way less f*cks (and are way more happier because of it).
Luckily, my son is already there in many ways, but I can only hope his confidence always overrules any fears or desires that may pop up of wanting to be like everyone else. For now, though, I’ll just stand back and watch him do his thing with pride.