A good friend of mine used to tell her kids “if everyone you encounter is wrong, you might want to look in the mirror to find the problem”. In other words, when you come home complaining about how awful all the kids are at school, maybe you are the one who is being awful. I do think that there is some truth to that. I also, however, think that there are times when recognizing that you are charting a course alone- and being at peace with that- is also important. Encouraging young people not to be followers in a world where there is so much pressure to fit in, might be an antidote to social media.
I remember being in the 6th grade and my friends and I went to the local market to get some snacks. Before we went in, they all agreed that they were going to steal candy. My parents had so drilled into me that the one thing to never, ever, ever, ever do is steal — and so I told my friends that I wasn’t going to do it. In a classic “mean girls” type situation, they told me that if I wasn’t going to participate, I was no longer going to be their friend. Even at 11 years old I knew that real friends don’t say things like that to each other. I walked away and was ostracized for the remainder of the school year. It was probably only a couple of months, but it was a lonely couple of months for sure. I wasn’t sad about not being friends with those girls any more- I could see that they weren’t nice people but it still hurt to be alone. I also was kicking myself that I hadn’t spent more time cultivating friendships outside of that clique. It was a lesson on a number of levels.
I was just talking to a 12 year old girl who is in the seventh grade. She told me she hates going to school because the kids “hate her”. I immediately went to my friend’s wisdom — in other words asking her what she is doing that makes everyone else hostile. But quickly I came to the conclusion that I have no idea who these other kids are- and the possibility exists that this is an opportunity for this child to get comfortable marching to the beat of her own drummer. I was fortunate to have had a father who encouraged me to worry less about what others thought and do what I knew to be right. Fortunately this little girl has similar support from her dad. It matters- a lot.
In a world where conformity is so prized and “group think” is hard to push against, particularly for young people, giving kids space to be different can be hard. Being nerdy, being arty, being religious in a secular world, being conservative in a liberal place or liberal in a conservative place- all of these can be hard going, particularly in junior high. As adults, being available to listen, support and encourage is key. We can offer perspective- about others who have charted their own courses and done great things, and also that this time — in junior high, and in our lives overall- is short, so making the most of it and not worrying about the detractors is something we can all do more of.