Is There Such A Thing As Too Unique? My Daughter's Individuality
My daughter’s name is Lily Marie. She is 12 years old, soon to be 13 in December. It seems like yesterday she was born with wide blue eyes, dark, wild curly hair and ready to take on the world.
Life with her has never been boring. Her mood can range from gleeful to rage-filled at the drop of a hat. She gets that from her dad, no doubt. She dyes her hair bright red and has the most amazing green eyes, with a shock of yellow around her pupils. She plays hard, cries easily and laughs even easier. She is incredibly funny and is able to find humor in just about anything. She gets that from me, obviously.
My daughter marches to the beat of her own drum. She is uniquely unique and I encourage her every day to celebrate, to absolutely luxuriate in her individuality. Where I was a shy and introverted child, she is friendly and open. Where I was overly cautious (I was called Smoky the Bear throughout my childhood), she has found a delicate balance between being aware of her surroundings while soaking up life like a super huge and squishy sponge.
She is the only child at her K-8 school without a naturally occurring hair color. She wears clothing because she likes it, not because it is what all other kids are wearing. She accessorizes with jewelry she makes herself and wears her makeup differently every day. She does not dress to MY taste, she dresses to HERS. My rule of thumb when shopping for her is this: If I like it, she will not. That’s it. I no longer buy clothing without her present. I have no idea what kind of mood she will be in and what will attract her on that particular day. She is unlike anyone I have ever met and I LOVE it.
What led me to write this article today, you ask? You might not have asked, but I am answering it anyway. In this day when we are preaching individuality, celebrating life, encouraging tolerance and mutual respect, I ask this question: Can we ever be TOO unique?
The unfortunate answer for my daughter is, yes. We moved from another state back to Arizona, the state of my birth, greatly due to our need for greater diversity. Where we were living simply lacked the diverse population I grew up with and I felt my daughter was missing out on a very important part of living.
My daughter entered 8th grade at a new school this year. A couple of days into school she was called into the principal’s office. The principal verified that Lily had done nothing wrong, but she wanted Lily to be aware that she had the potential to be a leader at the school. My first thought was, “Why, because she has bright red hair?” If that’s all it takes, then, woo hoo, we all can be leaders!!! I spoke with the principal and she repeated to me that she noticed Lily and wanted to give her a positive message. She encouraged her to join the Student Council and get involved at school. Lily came home that day puzzled as to why she had been given an audience with the principal so soon, but excited that she had been recognized as someone who could make a difference.
I encouraged her to do what was in her heart. We talked about rules and the importance of following them at this age whether she agrees with them or not. She completed the essay required to join Student Council, verified that she had the high grades to join and BAM, she was in. She also signed up to work on the yearbook committee. Both were positive signs in my eyes that she had not only listened to the principal, but internalized what she had been told and acted upon it. Good for my girl! You go!!!
The next time she was called into the principal’s office was because she wore soft-soled ankle boots to school on a P.E. day. She could have easily participated in P.E. with these soft-soled shoes, but sneakers are a requirement and the school is making no exceptions. I respect that. She was not allowed to participate in class and was counseled on the issue. She told me what had happened as soon as she got home, we talked again about rules, ensured she is dressing appropriately on P.E. days, and discussed the importance of remaining respectful toward her leaders and teachers.
She has been given audience with the principal two more times since then. Mind you, school has been in session for less than two months. Lily has never met the principal before unless it was to receive her Honor Roll award or a pat on the back for her contribution to the school.
Today I ran up to school with a selection of pants. Lily had worn ripped jeans to school and the principal spotted her and called her in to discuss the inappropriate clothing. As I entered the building, I walked past at least three other students wearing identical ripped jeans. Her teacher assured Lily that she didn’t realize it was a rule. Upon personal review of the district dress code, nothing is stated about jeans other than they must cover your body and they must not reveal underclothing. Lily should have been golden.
I am grateful and proud that my daughter trusts me. We talk about school, her friends, and how she is doing each day. She is a diligent student and she is very open about any problems she has. I would have been mortified by a visit with the principal but she grabbed her new pants, changed quickly, kissed my cheek and said, “Thanks mom” without a second thought.
I, on the other hand, left the school with an undercurrent of anger. That’s a lie. It was WAY more than an undercurrent. It was a rip tide. My daughter is carrying very high grades at school, volunteers regularly and stays after school to support the sports teams. She is bright, kind, compassionate, follows the rules and draws people to her like moths to a flame. She is not perfect, but she is perfectly extraordinary. I am beginning to see a negative pattern here. I am beginning to notice her being singled out in a negative manner as a direct result of her individuality.
When is individuality a BAD thing? When the majority of people do not approve of what makes you an individual? Perhaps. When a person in power does not approve of how you express your individuality? Maybe so. When you simply stand out and the person passing judgment has never been as comfortable in their skin as you are in yours? Another possibility.
What do I do now as a mother? Do I keep repeating, “You just need to follow the rules and respect those who make them”? What happens when the rules are being created as we go along? Do I sit down with the administrator and ask if my daughter is being singled out? I cannot see that as a positive step forward. Do I ignore what I see happening so I don’t make waves and create more attention for my daughter? Do I dye my daughter’s hair brown and see if it draws attention away from her? Where do we go from here?
I am assisting a brilliant woman in Australia who is writing an amazing book about bullying. There is a new wave of awareness regarding bullying and its effects on people of all ages. The message I have learned as I’ve grown is that bullying and abuse, whether physical or verbal, is NEVER acceptable. Now what do I tell my child? How do I know if she is being singled out? How do I know if she is being bullied not by other students, but by those who run the school? How do I know when to say “when” in terms of counseling my daughter in the office and pulling her away from her studies?
I don’t know the answer. I do know how I feel. I suspect I know what is happening, but without significant proof, what do I do? Even with proof, what does this mean for my daughter? She LOVES school, she adores her friends and her teachers, and she is very happy at her school. My initial reaction is often, “Don’t make waves.” How do we institute change without whipping up the stagnant waters? How do we institute change when becoming the voice that is heard can make your child’s life a nightmare?
I will forever encourage my daughter to express herself through her individuality. I will also help her to understand the importance of rules and guidelines, while respecting the beliefs, ideas and values of those around her, even if she does not share the same ideas. I want my daughter to live in a world of tolerance and compassion. The only way I know how to do that is to stand behind her and to teach her to be free thinking, loving and to treat others how she wants to be treated.
The hardest lessons though are those we don’t understand. I hope that people of all ages will learn to open their minds, open their hearts, and look at themselves before pointing fingers at others simply because they look, sound, think or act differently.