“Be Yourself” and Other Lies

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree of Freedom .

We tell kids—and grown-ups, too—to “Just be yourself.” Do we really mean it? Or do we just want them to be the selves we want them to be?

The corollary to that, usually aimed at adults and errant wives, is “I just want you to be happy.” Meaning, often times, “I want you to be happy being what I want you to be.”

This week, I watched only half as much TV as I usually do. That’s right: I missed half of Medium.

The thing about TV series—or reading/writing series books, for that matter—is that I get to play in somebody else’s world for a while, walk in their shoes, live their lives. For an hour, or for however long it takes to read or to write the book. When I watch more than one episode or read/write more than one book in a series, I see not only an immediate storyline that begins and ends in one episode, but also the continuing character development.

This week on Medium, I barely remember the plot, but one of the character developments really struck home with me. While Alison’s older daughter had been struggling with her like-mommy-like-daughter psychic abilities and trying to interpret them with almost as much difficulty as her mother, the middle daughter has been going through an identity crisis. Not so much her own crisis as one for her parents.

At the point where I tuned in, the girl had taken to wearing a bike helmet everywhere, including for her school picture—much to her straight-laced father’s chagrin. He cajoled, he argued, he failed. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t convince the girl to get rid of her helmet.

She loved it. The way it looked. It was her. It made her feel good.Flying By Night novel

But for the father, all he could think of was how that school picture would go to his relatives at Christmas, that the bike helmet would be on her head forever in those photographs, that he found it embarrassing that his daughter couldn’t be more of what he considered normal. He wanted her to look proper, to look a certain way—and it was all about his own image.

Alison, the mom? She didn’t mind. As her husband argued, she liked and encouraged the girl’s eccentricities. She thought a bike helmet in a school picture was just fine because that’s the way the girl was in that moment in time and it captures exactly who she was.

In a way, this episode reminded me of my own kids. Shannon always had to have everything matching, and preferably in pink and with a tiara. Not my thing, but I let her pick her own clothes. Aislinn, on the other hand, thought matching meant putting a purple and green satin polka dot shirt with striped black and pink striped leggings, boots, and a flower in her hair.

Every so often, a teacher or school volunteer would send home a note suggesting that I help Aislinn pick out her clothes so she could match better. I always shrugged it off because she was happy with her style, whether it bordered on Goth, gypsy, or Medieval. I let her pick out her own clothes and she could match up whatever she liked, however she liked.

After all, with my own fashion sense, who was I to tell her to “match” and be conservative? It’s just a matter of self-expression, and children can do so much worse than letting their true characters show through and learning, for real, to “Just be yourself.”