Having a child entering elementary school makes me nervous about a lot of things. But up until the second week of school, I didn’t think too much about my son being worried about what other kids would think of him. In the past, I worked in multiple school districts. However, it never dawned on me that children in kindergarten could have a strong sense of self-consciousness.
The realization came to me all because of some new clothes my mother sent for my children. There was solid color clothing, clothes with brightly colored patterns, and clothes with cartoon characters on them. Grateful, I presented everything to my kids as we were putting away laundry one evening. My kids were incredibly excited about the clothing. My son chose his outfit for the next day and laid it by his bed. Both kids went to sleep and I thought no more of it.
The next morning, my son told me he didn’t want to wear the shirt he had picked out. I said that was okay, but asked if something was wrong with the shirt. At first, I thought maybe he’d ripped it by accident or maybe it had shrunk in the wash and he couldn’t fit into it after all.
His response, however, struck me.
He told me he didn’t want to wear the shirt because of the cartoon characters on the front.
I asked why the characters were a problem. His reply?
I don’t want the kids at school to laugh at me.
Seriously?! The cartoon characters were from a kids’ show and it was size 5T. I know that there have to be plenty of other five-year-olds who like the same characters.
So, I probed. Why did he think other kids would laugh at him? Had someone already laughed at him?
Thankfully, no one had laughed at him. However, he didn’t think any other kids in his class liked the same TV show as he did. He said he tried to ask some friends to pretend to be the characters from that show with him on the playground and no one was interested. He was obviously worried about what they thought and was trying to fit in.
It was one of those moments when I wasn’t sure of the right thing to do. Do I tell him just to wear it because he’s anticipating something that may not even happen? Should I let him leave it home and wear it on the weekends?
In the end, I told him that if he wanted to wear the shirt, he should wear it! He shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks of his clothes. I reminded him that he was a good friend and other kids who would be good friends to him wouldn’t mind what he wore. But I also told him that I wasn’t going to force him to wear the shirt to school if he wasn’t comfortable and he could wear it on weekends instead if he would like. He picked a new shirt to wear and went to school without any further ado.
The whole experience shocked me.
He hadn’t expressed any of these kinds of feelings in the two years he was in preschool. I thought I had at least a year or two before I dealt with this, maybe even more than that. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized my son had developed this sense of self-consciousness. I didn’t know if I’d responded correctly to the situation. After much thought, I’m not sure there was a right answer.
Later, I was chatting with a friend who has a child the same age who also just started school. I told her how I felt badly that my son was already self-conscious.
To my surprise, she commiserated.
She told me her child had told her that she, “Needed to look pretty so she could make friends.”
Obviously, neither my friend nor I have encouraged or modeled this type of thinking (at least not that we know of.) We were both shocked to hear that our kindergarten-aged children were worried about how they looked so they could impress others. Their statements were the type we hadn’t thought we’d hear from our kids until their pre-teenage years when social relationships become more complicated. (I think there are only a handful of situations in life where anyone should feel like they have to dress to impress someone else, such as in a job interview or other professional setting. In general, I think it is sad that pre-teens have these feelings. However, feelings of self-consciousness are typical at some point in adolescence and, apparently, even younger.)
Sadly, there isn’t much we can do as our young children lose small pieces of innocence because of what they experience that we have no control over. I know it is my job as a parent to help my son develop as much self-confidence as I can while I am one of his biggest influences.
As my son grows, I don’t want him to feel like he has to worry about what his peers think of him. I plan to keep reassuring him that, if he is a good person, nothing else matters. He is a good kid, he has a family who loves him, and he’ll make good friends no matter what he’s wearing. Anyone laughing over something so ridiculous isn’t worth his time or worry.
In the meantime, I also don’t feel it will help me to force him to wear something that makes him feel self-conscious at school, regardless of whether or not he likes it. He needs to have the reassurance that I am confident in his decisions. I need to give him the chance to grow and learn from experience.
I have decided that this is just another case of parental balance; trying to teach my child values while allowing him to be independent in his decisions.
There are always going to be factors that impact my children’s thoughts outside of our home. What I can do is choose my words carefully around him when I’m talking about my own self-image and the clothes I am wearing. Additionally, I need to address situations like this as they arise and he needs to know he can communicate openly with me about feelings of inadequacy or self-consciousness. Hopefully, after my children become young adults, this sense of self-consciousness won’t be so strong and they can be confident in who they are.