My third grader would rather wear a cape and sing songs than kick a ball with the other boys. And I’m doing everything I can to keep it that way.
My son has come back in the house three times this evening. Once to get water, once to tell me he couldn’t find his bike helmet yesterday, and the final time just to say hello.
In summers past my son and his brother have actively taken part in the neighborhood social scene. Our street is lined with boys who are above, below and of the same ages as both of my sons, and they generally spend every waking summer moment playing together or asking “how much longer” until they can play again. But this summer, his stops at home have become more frequent, and I suspect it’s because he has finally noticed: he has noticed that all the boys like to play football and basketball and roll around in the grass—and while he can wear out the knees in his jeans with the best of them, what they love to do is not what he loves to do.
Every day I watch him try to be interested in the group activities, despite his lack of interest. I see him enter their games floppily, attempt to catch, kick, or throw the ball—but then circle back around reciting his favorite line from the latest musical or movie that has captured his attention. Usually his friends laugh, but sometimes they simply don’t get it. They don’t get him and why he doesn’t enjoy whatever they are playing as much as they do.
Raising a kid who’s not a “typical boy”
As a parent, I know full well that my son is walking a fine line in a larger game of belonging versus standing out. He is nearing nine years old, but will still wear a costume to the grocery store if I let him. He takes singing lessons and auditions for every play within a 15-mile radius. He creates costumes I hope to see behind a red curtain someday. He is not what most would call a “typical boy,” and I’m on constant mom-guard for anyone who feels the need to point this out.
As he heads toward third grade, he is beginning to see that his costume-wearing, show-tune-singing self is in the minority when it comes to boys in general. I can often see him weighing his options mentally, considering whether to join something he’d rather not play just to be with the boys, or break away to do something he loves. Watching him during these moments, struggling to decide whether to cave to the pressure of doing what the other kids are doing, I’ve realized that my role as mom is more important than ever right now.
When I spoke with Nicole Knepper, a clinical psychotherapist in the Chicago area, she agreed. “Kids with strong values and beliefs often have an easier time maintaining their individuality,” she says. So it’s important that his family helps him understand his own worth and encourages him to retain his faith in himself whenever he decides not to join a “regular” group activity. These skills will be the foundation of resiliency that he will need for many years to come, and for things much bigger than a front-yard football game. Knepper adds that, “it’s important for parents to live their values consistently; kids are watching and learning from what they see the people they trust and love most doing everyday.” So, determined for my son to hang on to his own unique self, I set out to take specific, actionable steps that will help foster his sense of individuality, while being a consistent strong pillar of support for my child.
What parents can do
These are a few key things I’ve been trying to do to help my son follow the path to what he loves, rather than what everyone else says he should love:
1. Supporting his choice to do what he likes. People have a tendency to tell my son to go play ball “with the boys.” I know it often comes from a good place, so I thank them for the offer while letting them know he’s perfectly happy wearing his cape and singing his latest song. I’d much rather him do something he enjoys alone than do something he doesn’t like just to be part of a group. The more I let other adults know that he is comfortable doing his own thing, the more everyone else—including their kids and even my son—will be comfortable with it, too.
2. Fostering an environment that supports his interests. If he wants to make a costume out of felt or a hat with feathers, I try to make the effort to take him to the craft store just as I would to get cleats at the sporting goods store. I save art scraps for him to dig through, and I talk positively about his projects. I want to give him an environment where it is easy to do what he loves, so there is less of a chance that he gives it up for something “cool.”
3. Celebrating individuality. When I’m with my kids, I make an effort to compliment people who do their own thing and do it well. We love the guy at the mall who belts out tunes while he works (even though others may give him strange looks) and the girl, who every time we see her has changed her hair color yet again. We smile at these people and talk to them. Being different is supported, not laughed at, in our family.
4. Finding positive role models. I’ve made it a priority to find men in theater, costume design and the arts for my son to look up to. I make sure to mention their names, we talk about them and watch their films. I hope that following along with their success will help him stick to doing what he loves in their field of interest.
I hope that with small, focused efforts my family and I can continue to show my son how important it is to stay true to himself. I hope that somehow the lessons and examples we set for him will stick with him as he grows and the stakes become higher. While I know my days of grocery shopping with a boy in a Batman suit are numbered, I hope I will never stop reminding him how amazing that young man underneath is. And I’ll be right there at his side if he ever begins to forget.
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