Recently, the fifth-grade basketball team that I coach was taking a break between drills when one of the boys lifted up his jersey. "Guys, look at this," he said. The other boys turned and watched as he modeled the rippled beginnings of a rather impressive set of abdominal muscles.
"Hey, he's got a serious six-pack," one boy said.
Soon, several members of the team also had their shirts lifted up, breath held and gut muscles clenched as they tried to push their own six-packs into existence. This was not easy for some of the stockier boys, and with sheepish grins they pulled their jerseys back down.
It was one of those random, goofy moments of tween life, and as the coach I thought it was interesting — and perhaps even a bit enlightening — to see how much attention my basketball players could direct at something that had nothing to do with basketball. (Last time I checked, a "serious six-pack" wasn't the key to a good pass or an accurate jump shot.) But as the father of one of the boys on the team (a boy who later told me that he wanted to start doing sit-ups every day), I also saw a familiar context to this little incident: Here was a group of kids coming up with a completely arbitrary standard by which they could measure each other, another little way for each boy on the team to feel like he fit in — or didn't.
Pressure to fit in
If only this were limited to sit-ups and six-packs! Children have a strong desire to belong, to have a sense of value and purpose in life. At home, parents help create a child's sense of belonging through the joys and challenges of family life. But outside the home, kids will often seek to fulfill this desire by trying to fit in with their peers, whether at school, at church events, or just hanging out at a friend's house. Kids feel the need to behave, believe, look and live a certain way in order to be accepted by their friends.
Around the middle-school years, a perceived pressure to fit in really takes off. Everything that is trendy, popular or convenient within a group is an opportunity for a child to feel like he belongs to that group — or doesn't. That pressure to fit in can lead to unhealthy friendships and a pressure to engage in immoral and harmful behaviors. And this pressure to fit in is an issue our kids will face long into their adult years. Even our economy runs on the "fit in" model. (Buy this! You'll be happy like all the other people!)
As parents, we want our children to have friends who accept them. We want them to experience a true sense of belonging. Part of that goal is helping them understand an important truth of life: Belonging is different than fitting in. Help them recognize this important distinction. Belonging means having a place as the person you are. Fitting in means changing who you are to be accepted by others. Belonging leads to perseverance, an ability to handle risk, a foundational knowledge that there is a grand journey bigger than the daily challenges of life. Belonging lets us be different — and enjoy that difference.
We can be intentional about helping our kids have a sense of belonging with their peers, rather than cave to the pressure to fit in. Here are some suggested strategies:
Let them know they are not alone.
First, we can help kids see that their parents relate to the struggles they are going through. We've all been there before, in some way. Share stories about how you dealt with the pressure to fit in as a child — or even as an adult — so that your kids don't feel alone in their trials. Talk about what helped you overcome these struggles, and what helped you find a real sense of belonging.
Be intentional about surrounding your children with people who honestly share their own stories, creating a family, church and youth group environment that helps kids journey together through life's trials as a team — an environment built on the foundations of safety, love and belonging.
Match kids to activities that fit them.
When my basketball players was absorbed in the lofty activity of comparing stomachs, I came over and talked with them for a bit, reminding them that we had a larger mission than gut muscles. We would work together. We would practice our skills together, persevere together and have a lot of fun together. Everyone had a place because that's what being a team is all about.
Children are able to develop a real sense of belonging when they recognize that they belong to something bigger. They want to participate and compete and work together. This goes far beyond sports, of course. It could be an academic club, a science fair project, a music or art group, or an ongoing youth service team. The point is that we, as parents, have the great opportunity to help our kids discover those environments and activities of life that are a natural fit for their unique personalities, gifts and interests. Be intentional about helping your children discover their strengths and interests, the things they have in common with peers. When children work together on a big goal, they fulfill their need to belong, without caving to the pressure to change themselves to fit in.
Teach them to view others with compassion.
In the hallways and classrooms of middle school, genuine love and kindness are welcome in every group. Help your children to see others with compassion, and not with desire to be accepted by them. Help your kids recognize the possible reasons other kids may pressure their peers to fit in. Why might that girl feel insecure? Why might that boy look down on others who don’t behave as he does?
When my kids tell me about a peer who was unkind or malicious at school, I ask them to think about how that child may have been hurt so that he or she feels the need to cause pain to others. Many times it's because they don't themselves feel like they belong. They may have been picked on by siblings or by other kids at school. Maybe their parents have pressured them to live up to the standards of an older sibling.
Many kids go into school thirsty for affirmation that they're not getting at home — and often they try to manufacture that for themselves. I tell my kids: The more you simply act like yourself and demonstrate love and kindness to others, the more respect and trust you earn, and the less pressure you will feel to fit in with the lifestyles others are pushing.
Help them see the big picture.
Several years ago, my son left a drawing for me at the breakfast table. It was a simple picture of the two of us, and above the figures he had written (with some misspellings), “Daddy, can I go to work with you?” I couldn’t take my son to work that morning, but his little note really stuck with me throughout the day. Can I go to work with you? His message actually inspired me. What a great way to approach each day — to consider the ways we can go to work with the Father. And it has become the goal I want my kids to have in mind each day they go to school and to their various activities. Today, how can I go to work with God?
One Scripture that is foundational for my parenting is Ephesians 2:10, which says, "For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago" (NLT). What if we saw our kids as masterpieces, created to accomplish surprising things every day? To shine a light in the darkness. To compete with vigor and enthusiasm. To treat others with love and respect, offering cold water to the thirsty and help and hope to the weary.
When kids understand that they are agents of love and change, the perceived need to fit in with the roller-coaster whims of the crowd will fade to white noise. In God’s kingdom, everyone belongs. And His love is contagious.