Saturday, January 29, 2011

Teaching Your Kids to Embrace Their Difference

When I was a child, somehow it seemed to me that no matter what I did or where I went, I was different. At home, my siblings were all wonderful, well behaved children – then there was Roddy (my nickname). I was always into some sort of mischief. When we moved to the United States from Jamaica, I was 12 years old and so very different from everyone at my school in Houston, Texas. All of a sudden, I now had a weird accent. Plus at the time, I had a speech impediment that caused me to stutter very badly.

I could go on and on but it would all come to the same conclusion – I consistently seemed to be the odd one out. I remember so often just wishing, praying and hoping that I could just fit in and be one of the guys. I never even wanted to be popular – I just wanted to fit in. I developed some self esteem and self image issues that caused me on many occasions to regret the fact that I was even born. In my high school, one of my nicknames was the Lone Ranger because I was always alone – no friends, no life, no nothing.
How many of you can relate to this description of my life? And better yet, how many of you have kids that struggle today with these issues? Somehow during the developmental years, things can be so tough on kids. Peer pressure and the general desire to fit in will cause them – particularly teens –  to go to great lengths to be accepted. Some experiment with drugs and alcohol just to try and be cool like all the cool kids. Some suffer from depression and anxiety as a result of feeling like misfits. And as we have all seen on the news from time to time, some even take their own lives because they just got tired of being the odd ones out.

I always say that I’m sure that if there was a vote taken for the class of 1988 at Mirabeau B. Lamar High School in Houston for the most likely to fail, Rodrick Walters would win by a landslide. I wasn’t on the Honor Roll – I had average grades. I didn’t play sports. I had no social life. I didn’t fit in with the jocks or the smart crowd. I just couldn’t find my place no matter how I tried.
When I went through my turmoil as a teenager, there’s no one who could convince me that 23 years later I would’ve started a blog where I share tips on parenting. Or that I would develop a worldwide audience just by sharing my thoughts on parenthood and encouraging others. No one could have convinced me that my life could be of use to anyone in anyway.
You may ask, “What happened between those days of turmoil and today?” The answer lies in the title of this post – Teaching Your Kids to Embrace Their Difference.
When I studied at the University of Texas at Austin, initially I struggled to make good grades. Two years into my studies, I found myself at a crossroads. I was on the verge of being academically dismissed. It was during this time a friend of mine told me that it’s ok to be me. “Stop trying to be like other people and just work on being yourself,” she said, “You’re different but that’s what makes you unique. Just focus on you.”
You see, for all of my life up to that point, I was always trying to be like others. I never really embraced who I am. So I did things like rehearse talking with a southern accent – like a real Texan. You ever heard a Jamaican try to talk like a cowboy? Not cool at all. But I was really just doing my best to fit in.
My friend’s words set me on a new path. For the first time, I began to embrace the fact that I’m different. I’ve always been different. I will always be different. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, it is something to be embraced. I’m unique – there’s never been another person like me and there will never be one. What a liberating feeling that was!
When your kids have problems with peer pressure and strive to fit in because others say they’re different, try using this line on them: if you’re not different, how can you make a difference? Isn’t that profound? Because if you think about it, the difference makers throughout history were labeled as different. The great persons throughout history who we celebrate today are or were all difference makers – Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Billy Graham and so on. They certainly didn’t fit in with the crowd and that’s why today, dead or alive, their names are household names.
Let’s try to encourage our kids to love themselves just the way they are. Peer pressure causes them to want to become like everyone else but they’re better than that, aren’t they? I sure think so. My daughter is a tween – 12 years old on the verge of being a teenager. She’s at the age now where it matters to her what others think of her. How she is seen by her peers matters more now than a couple of years ago. Having been through a few negative experiences in this area, I’m prepared to lead her on the right path – telling her that it’s better to just be herself – and those who will be her friends will gravitate towards her.
Sometimes I wonder what my childhood might have been like if I embraced myself and my uniqueness from then. But you know what? I’m glad it worked out this way. Because of those dark days,  I can relate to peer pressure and the desire to fit in that many of our children contend with each day. And from that experience, I believe that I can help to encourage those who struggle with these issues.

I’ll close this post with my poem Different and Difference. If you have kids or other loved ones who you believe would benefit from the message embodied in it, please do share it with them. It is a liberating poem that, I believe, encourages others to just be themselves:
Different and Difference
By Rodrick Walters

It seems that no matter the places you’ve been,
somehow you never could seem to fit in.
Like two left shoes, it could clearly be seen
that you always were different—not a part of the team.

"Why is it?" you wondered again and again,
you always seem to be left out in the rain?
While they move with the crowd, you wait there in vain.
While they stand proud, you sit there in pain.

But listen to this: I know where you've been.
Don't look where I am—it's not what it seems.
I've seen many days where I didn't fit in;
how I longed to be free from that burden within.

The truth is your difference just makes you unique.
Don't let them convince you that it makes you weak.
You carry the answers that so many seek.
The lessons you’ve learned are all yours to teach.

For if everyone was all just the same,
we'd be the same person—just with different names.
Because you are different there’s much to attain.
You can make a difference—that truth is so plain.

Stand and be proud of who you are,
and let the world see that you are a star.
So let your light shine both near and afar.
The key to life's treasures lies within your heart.

Remember, it’s your kids’ difference that will cause them to rise to the top and shine like the stars that they are. Think on this and help them celebrate their difference.

Enjoy a wonderful and productive day.
The Upbeat Dad

1 comment:

  1. Lovely blog. I see so many children who feel like they do not belong and want to. I work with them on their uniqueness and help them embrace it. I believe coaching can really do that.