Embracing the Weird in Your Kid

It was love at first line of dialogue when I first met Shania on The New Normal last fall. She’s 10 years old, new to Los Angeles and living with her single mom, and in one of the first episodes has decided that at least for a day, she is going to live her life in character as Little Edie Beale from Grey Gardens. Donning a black Diana Vreeland-style headscarf and speaking exclusively in Edie’s lockjaw-meets-mental illness glory, she not only gave Drew Barrymore a run for her money as little Edie, but she won my heart.

In one of the last episodes of the now defunct series (RIP New Normal), Shania acts up, and the worst punishment her mother can think of is to say, “No Nancy Grace for a week.” Beyond adorable. And yet, in real life, she would probably have been called “the weird kid.” Weird, quirky, offbeat – however you want to label it. I’m writing about how charming Shania was, but the truth is that it can be hard, and sometimes heartbreaking, to parent the quirky kid.

I know. I have one of my own. My daughter has her own precocious interests that are often out of the realm of a typical eight year old. In kindergarten when the other girls donned Disney princess costumes for Halloween, my daughter dressed as Michael Jackson. As she strolled through the parade with her one sparkly glove, the teachers giggled in amusement while the children looked confused. The next year, I might add, there were several Michael Jacksons.. She can get lost in her own world doing things like brainstorm funny food combinations and branding them (one of my favorites is pretzels dipped in watermelon juice – otherwise known as “wetzels”) or debating the pros and and cons between the various hotel chains we visit.  When she hears someone is going on vacation, one of the first questions she’ll ask is, “are you saying at a Hyatt or a Marriott, and why?”

Of course she loves to play and have plenty of typical eight year old fun too, and none of those things are weird per se, but in a world where plenty of five year olds are already glancing around the lunch table to see what “the it” kids are doing, individual thinking or odd interests can sadly stand out in the crowd. So, call it weird, or quirky or going against the grain, or marching to the beat of your own drummer or any other phrase that translates to despite being sometimes brilliant, she can have a hard time fitting in.

Most recently she’s been diligently working on a trilogy, as she calls it – although so far there’s only one story. It revolves around the lives of three sisters — the oldest of whom, and the main character, Sylvana, is a lesbian, who’s also a retired pilot now running her own eighties vintage clothing store. Sylvana was having a hard time trying to decide whether to keep the store open or join the Peace Corps when she met a woman at the store who was crazy for eighties dance parties, thus encouraging Sylvana to keep the store for a least awhile. Did I mention my daughter is eight?

We were at a school event recently where I could overhear the other eight and nine year olds talking about how they were saving money to buy Justice jeans. While I was thankful that my daughter didn’t know, or care about them, and I kind of wanted to gag that this was the line of discussion, I hated what happened next. Silent until there was a break in conversation, she then joined in by saying, “I’m writing a book about a girl who owns a clothing store….” Presumably connecting the jeans discussion to the store, she continued. “Yeah, she sells all eighties stuff and they even have eighties dance parties there.” Before she could dive into the benefits of Jordache or Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, on cue the alpha girl in the pack rolled her eyes at my daughter, then looked away and said, “awkward….”

I cringed a little inside, but then wanted to kick myself for having that reaction. Why would I be anything less than proud about her sharing a creative story she was writing? Then a scene from my own third grade year played in my head. One day, Troy Miller, the class smart aleck, turned to me and said, “you going to a Thanksgiving celebration anytime soon with those pilgrim shoes?” It was 1976 and in my corner of suburbia, preppy had not become as common as it was about to, but in my household it reigned.  I got one new pair of shoes each September – brown lace-up Docksiders. ‘Classic and sturdy’ my mom called them. But I knew Troy was making fun of me because every other kid in school was paying outrageous prices for leather Nikes that were just beginning to be the hot shoe to wear. I looked at him defiantly and said, “they’re not Pilgrim shoes. They’re Docksiders, and they’re classics.”  He laughed and muttered something obnoxious under his breath. My pride had deterred him for the moment, but deep down, I felt ashamed of my shoes, and I wished in that moment that I could dress like all the other kids.

A year later, the whole school would be wearing Docksiders. In hindsight, I could have called myself a trendsetter. But that incident gave me one of my first hints of self-consciousness. I remember the feeling to this day, despite the fact that I can’t remember where I parked my car an hour ago.

I wondered if my daughter was embarrassed the same way I had been when she was rebuffed. In my case it was just shoes, and as an adult I can say it didn’t matter, but it still hurt.  And in my daughter’s case, it was something she cared deeply about and was investing a lot of her free time in to create something. I want her to know what I didn’t know in third grade.  That it can hurt, but it’s actually cool to stand out, be different, try new things, and forge new paths, whether it’s a pair of shoes or a hobby or anything else… I wish I heard more when I was younger about people who forge new paths. I wish someone had told me that blending in is really not that cool. I wish I had heard someone say what Ashton Kutcher said at the Teen Choice Awards – that “you don’t live a life, you build one.”

Parents hate the possibility that their child will have awful memories of being embarrassed seared into their memories forever. The answer to that might be in celebrating all the ways they show us their individuality. By adulthood, we have all learned to admire individualism. The trick is to teach our kids to strive for it as well.

What kids — and unfortunately, some parents — call weird and quirky is often just lack of conformity. Weird is kids who haven’t caved to peer pressure. Weird is kids who don’t stifle those unique creative little voices. Weird is building your own life rather than following someone else’s, as Ashton says.

I don’t know if my daughter was hurt or not that day. She didn’t let on to me.  But she’s still writing her trilogy and I signed her up for a writing class that night. If she really does love writing that much, she needs to nurture her own voice, not anyone else’s.

I don’t want her to fall prey to the standards of what’s acceptable as deemed by some obnoxious, outspoken nine year old, or to think that the pecking order in life is established before puberty. I want to nurture the heck out of the amazing, unique person that she is.

So embrace the weird. Go get your weird on and encourage your kids to do the same.

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