The lies we tell children have many different aims. The one we discussed last week, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” is obviously and understandably meant to teach children not to be prejudiced. The problem with teaching this lesson with a lie is the problem with lying in general–more often than not, sooner or later your lie will get found out, and when it does the point you tried to make or the lesson you were trying to teach will not just lose its credibility but it will in fact be directly undermined.
Today’s lie is another example of one such fairy tale that can have some pretty powerful blowback once reality comes knocking on the door. This one hasn’t been distilled to some catchy universal saying, unless there’s one I’m overlooking, but the lie itself if “be yourself and people will like you.” Young children especially are very eager to please their peers and “fit in” so others will like them and play with them and share their toys and not exclude or bully them on the school playground. This can cause problems for children who are socially awkward for any of a number of reasons, and realistically speaking, the overwhelming majority of children will have some reason to feel awkward in some way. Often this manifests itself either in a child feeling left out because of some immutable or difficult-to-change trait, feeling uncomfortable doing something because the other children he wanted to play with were doing it, or getting into trouble because the kids he was playing with did so. It’s understandable that parents would want to try to shore up a child’s self-confidence and encourage him to feel comfortable “being himself,” and it is not wrong to tell a child that confidence is an attractive trait.
Image inset: And yet they can. And they will.
What IS wrong is the blanket statement “just be yourself and he/she/they will like you.” The problem with this is that when stated as this broad of a catchall, it is patently untrue. Some personalities and interests just do not mesh. You can be the nicest person in the world and if you like to stay home and read and play video games you’re probably not going to be best friends with the kid who likes to go to her grandparents’ farm and go hiking. Note that I say “probably,” there are definitely exceptions–but the blanket statement does not countenance exceptions, much less being the exception. Likewise you can have similar interests to another person but if she’s a self-obsessed jerk then all the common ground in the world is probably not going to result in a good relationship.
The biggest problem with this lie is that it is often pitched and heard as “be yourself and the person who you want to like you will like you,” whereas the real truth is “be yourself and the kind of people who you will want to be around will like you.” In reality, “being yourself” and letting your proverbial freak flag fly is at least as likely to drive away the kid who has the shiny new toy you want to play with or the girl who you’re just dying to take to prom as it is to get them to sit down at your table. But the hard reality is that not everyone who you like is going to like you back, and not everyone who you want to spend your time with is going to want to spend time with you. In fact, chances are that asserting your individuality will drive away more people than you’ll attract, which also very likely includes the people you’re aiming to befriend–if “being yourself” was going to do it, chances are they’d already be your friends. The danger of this lie is that telling a child to “be himself” in the hopes that he’ll draw the attention of the people he wants to be friends with is that when doing so backfires the lesson he learns is that “I need to pretend to like horses next time if I want the pretty girl to sit beside me.” His individuality and self-confidence take a major hit.
Image inset: Reality.
And of course there is an important subset of people for whom this statement is dangerous because “being themselves” is not something that ought to be encouraged. To put it simply, before you give someone the freedom and support to completely be themselves, it’s wise to make sure they’re not a complete jerk. The hard truth is that some people even as children are proto-sociopathic dickbags for whom “being yourself” means growing into a narcissistic loner as the rest of humanity never fails to disappoint them. In which case such people probably have a bright future as Twitter trolls, Facebook junkies, and food bloggers, where their ego can be fed and stroked and their appetite for being nasty and condescending can be sated without ever having to deal with real people in meatspace.
As a final note, I want to be 100% clear that I am NOT suggesting it is bad in any way to teach children to be themselves and to instill self-confidence in them. What I am saying is that it is harmfully dishonest to teach kids that this is the solution when they want other kids to be their friends. Be yourself and the friends will come, or they won’t, but either way there’s no other way to live.
Tune in next week for another lie.