The Art of Parenting Non-Conforming Kids
Six ways to teach your kids to live fearless, authentic, and wildly successful lives.
Parents take note: We’re living in a time when being “different” actually pays off. Here’s how to nurture individuality in the formative years.
Few jobs are more daunting than raising well-rounded, happy, confident kids. On one hand, you adore what makes your child unique: your daughter’s all-consuming love of science (she’s bordering on nerdy!) or your son’s quiet disposition and curious spirit. On the other hand, you worry that being too “different”—too shy, too short, too tomboyish (or in the case of boys, too sensitive) too anything—is a sure path to unpopularity and isolation. What’s a conflicted parent to do? Urge your child to succeed within socially prescribed boundaries? Or let him or her break the (unspoken) rules and risk being labeled “weird”?
First, stop fretting. Your hand-wringing desire for your child to “fit in” is surely borne of love, but it’s also misguided for an age in which diversity is celebrated. Even if your child does face a few bumps in the road, learning to be herself (or himself) will pay off in the long run.
Kids who are confident in themselves, their background, and their unique way of thinking, looking, or acting are more likely to succeed, not in spite of their differences, but because of them. The benefits of being a bold individual just keep on unfolding as your kids reach adulthood—especially these days.
We are living in an era that celebrates uniqueness—not for its own sake but for the tangible benefits it yields throughout life. There has never been a better time to be yourself. Embracing and nurturing your inner “fearless fish” brings far richer rewards than conformity ever could.
Your unusual personality, outlook, appearance, or background—really, any attribute that sets you apart—is not a liability but an asset. Being different gets you noticed, whether it’s in the office, at school, or at home with your own family, and that is the first step to gaining influence with those around you.
When you refuse to hide or downplay your uniqueness, it makes you more authentic and people gravitate toward those they like, trust, and believe in. Take Barack Obama, for example. His entire campaign celebrated his differences and used change as a cornerstone for his message. Today, he’s the President of the United States because voters saw that he was authentic and true to himself, and they were drawn to him.
Today’s kids are growing up in a time of exhilarating change, an era in which they face more opportunities (and yes, more challenges) than any group before them. Read on to learn how to help them navigate the road before them by being a fearless fish out of water (just like you).
Be a truly fearless leader. One of the most effective ways of teaching our kids is to lead by example. Our children look up to us and mimic the behaviors they see in their parents each day. If they see a person who is comfortable in her own skin, who dares to go against the flow, and most importantly, who is happy, they will learn to do the same for themselves. If this doesn’t describe you, well, it’s time to take a look in the mirror.
Your children are watching you, and usually when you least expect it. If you are an authentic person and you live your own life as a fearless fish, your kids will see that and it will serve as a powerful lesson for the people they will become. Make sure to be who you are wherever you go—at work, at home, at your children’s school—and when they see the confidence you exhume and the respect you command, they will follow your lead.
Help your kids to fit in the right way. It’s only natural for kids (of any age) to want to be like their peers and that’s okay. The compromise to this scenario is to encourage your kids to associate with kids who are more like them. That way, they can feel accepted and part of a group while being themselves. Encourage your kids to join clubs or local groups that cater to their personalities and interests.
If your son is a music whiz, sign him up for a local music class so he can make friends with other kids who share his talent and passion. Or encourage your daughter to join the science club or debate team at school, depending on her interests. Find a place where your kids can still fit in and feel like part of the group, while at the same time fostering their individuality and unique talents.
Foster and encourage your child’s unique gifts. Nobody knows your child as well as you do, which puts you in the perfect position to identify those qualities that will make him stand out from the crowd and pave the way to a successful future. Take a cue from Tiger Woods’ father. When he noticed that his child was a budding golf prodigy, he saw the opportunity and ignored the odds stacked against a young, bi-racial golfer in a sport dominated by older white men. We all know how his story ended.
Every parent has a child who is an individual, who is unlike anybody else on this planet. You have known this person from his first minute in the world, and you know what makes him special. At a young age, children aren’t in a position to leverage themselves in the real world like adults can and this is where you are their biggest asset. If you know why your kid is unique, don’t just gush about it around the water cooler get your child involved in ways that will benefit him now and well into the future.
Teach him to use his differences to make a difference. Kids who learn to give back at an early age are that much more likely to do so well into their adult lives. Getting involved is a great life lesson, and a great way for you to spend time together as a family. Let your child pick a cause that he cares about, and then help him to use his differences to make a difference in the lives of others.
If your child is a star athlete, teach him to use his sports star status to raise money for a charity. You can ask the team’s sponsor to help, or have fans donate one dollar per goal to be donated to a good cause. Or does your daughter have a way with animals that reminds you of the dog whisperer? Sign up to be volunteers at the local animal shelter. Working together on a common cause can have only positive results. You get to spend time as a family and you get to help out the community all while teaching your future fearless fish an important life skill!
Let her change her mind. Nobody wants to raise a quitter, and sometimes that can mean we force our kids to stick with activities and hobbies that may not be right for who they are growing up to be. If Sally loved horseback riding last month, but this week she will absolutely die if she doesn’t get to join the local 4-H, it can be enough to make your head spin, and your wallet shrink. While it’s not okay to let kids have free reign over your schedule (or your budget), it’s important to pay attention to their changing interests and to encourage them to pursue different things until they find what suits them.
While the outlet for your child’s passion may change, the root of who she is stays the same. Clearly, Sally has a passion for nature, and through different experiences, she will learn to use that passion to stay relevant and current. As a fearless fish, you have to keep reinventing yourself, changing with the times and with the places you work and live, while holding on to the essential you. If your kids want to pursue something, let them try for a year. Once the season is over, if they want to move on, it’s okay to let them. Forcing kids to stay involved in something they don’t care about will only smother the fire in them that you’re trying to stoke.
Know when to let go. It’s inevitable: You can’t protect your kids from everything, and sooner or later (and it’s probably sooner!) they are going to be faced with a challenge that will rock their world. Maybe a bully at school has made Susie her new target, or Timmy didn’t make the basketball team and all his friends did. For kids, upsets like these are devastating. But they are also perfect opportunities for them to learn how to overcome obstacles by practicing the ABCs for fish out of water—action, belief, and courage.
Don’t try to swoop in and make it all better. That may be the worst thing you can do. Instead, help your child equip himself with the means to solve his own problems. If Timmy didn’t make the team, but you know he’s a talented artist, encourage him to get more involved in the school’s art program or sign him up for advanced art classes at the local community college. Or help Susie boost her self-esteem and confidence by enrolling her in a karate class or debate team; her bully will move on when she learns that her victim can stand up for herself.
There’s a great bonus that comes with striving to raise fearless kids: In the process, you perfect and refine your own journey toward fearlessness.
Parenting is as much about your growth and evolution as it is your child’s. As we teach, we learn. And there’s no richer or more rewarding path than learning how to cast aside our fear and be true to ourselves. Living an authentic life successfully is fulfilling beyond words—and an opportunity that no child should go without.