My fourteen year old step-daughter Faith came home last night from a birthday party, looking a bit off color. “D’you feel all right?” I asked. Her response was to burst into tearful sobbing and throw herself into her mother’s arms.
It turns out she’d been ‘made’ to watch the horror movie Quarantine. A quick google revealed it was poorly rated; ‘not convincing enough.’ There was no point in telling that to Faith. She knows she doesn’t handle horror stories well—even bad ones—and usually avoids them. This time, however, afraid to spoil the fun of the handful of girls she was there to bond with, she suppressed her better judgement and went with the flow. My initial urge was to ‘fix’ the problem by telling her what she should have done, on the assumption that next time she’s behave rationally. Hm!
Thanks to a lifetime’s habit of second-guessing myself (in good ways and bad), I suppressed my knee-jerk response and cast my mind back to when I was fourteen. I recalled my willingness to do anything to be accepted. Popular kids who don’t suffer from this may feel immune, but they’re just lucky enough to fit in at the head of the pack. The need for peer acceptance is a biological compulsion, an ancient survival mechanism that with the civilizing effects of society has only grown more complicated. I went over the times I’d compromised myself, looking for an example to share with Faith.
There was the time I joined an enthusiastic conversation at school about rugby, as if I cared, and was promptly press-ganged into the school team. This was an honour that couldn’t be refused; it meant giving up my Saturday mornings to chase an oblong ball from one end of a muddy pitch to the other while being pounded and crushed in testosterone piles—a futile exercise that impinged on my precious free time. During the two rugby seasons I continued to be picked for the team, I realised the absurdity of fitting into something I didn’t care about, and gradually abandoned all pretence. Once the others realised my heart wasn’t in it, I was out of the team—and out of favour.
What I couldn’t see at the time is transparently obvious today: to the extent that I came to see peer pressure as opposed to my self-interest, I also learned to trust my own path. Not everyone gets this; some people continue to compromise themselves even as adults, so of course I’m anxious for Faith to learn this as soon as possible—and here’s a tailor-made opportunity.
Recalling my feelings as a fourteen-year-old enabled me to understand Faith’s awkwardness and overcame my urge to fix her. Now I was able to help her understand it. Instead of telling her what she did wrong and how she should have behaved, I commiserated with her predicament and made her feel accepted. After all, her problem was not feeling accepted.
My wife Caroline is a hands-on mother who insists on leaving nothing unsaid. In our dinner table conversations, Faith’s already seeing and accepting what makes her unique. Some of it she likes, and some she doesn’t. That’s life. We’re satisfied that she’s growing into herself with her eyes and heart open. What else can we ask for?