The Best Damn Plum: On raising weird kids

Dear World’s Okayest Mom,

My nephew is seven and a really nice kid, but sort of odd and sensitive. He’s going to have a pretty hard time of it in the world of boys. And he has long hair, which is only going to make it worse. What’s the best way to tell his parents he’d fit in better if he cuts his hair? Or should I talk to him about it? — Concerned Uncle

Dear Concerned Uncle,

It’s hard when we, as adults, see the looming Train of Judgment barreling down the tracks toward our little loved one, and they are just standing there all innocent, picking dandelions and day-dreaming. We want to grab them and mold them into the shape society prefers before they get smashed to smithereens. That’s a completely natural and loving impulse, Concerned Uncle.

Except that’s not our job.

We humans are all freaks, in our own curious and baffling way. We all have tics and eccentricities and that odd interest in World War II planes or a belief in fairies or something that the world rolls its eyes at. That Train of Judgment comes for each of us at some point and we each have to decide for ourselves how much of our glorious weirdness to share and how much to hide. By snatching our kooky beloveds out of the way of that train, toughening them up or “fixing” them before the rest of the world gets to them, we’re really just hopping in the engineer’s seat and mowing them down ourselves.

I spent every recess of fourth grade alone, swinging around the pole outside my classroom, waiting for the bell to ring so I could back inside to the safety of books and pencils. All the other girls in the class were invited to Kimi Bryce’s birthday party, but I wasn’t. And I shouldn’t have been, because I was an insufferable little snob, sighing loudly at students who misspelled easy words or hadn’t yet memorized their multiplication tables. It was a lonely year, but I had a library card and this one girl who would sit with me at lunch sometimes and respond to my stupid jokes with a braying laugh. By sixth grade, though, the loneliness was too much. I left my 1000-page novel hidden at home and nodded along that the test was “super-hard.” By high school, I got so good at complying with social norms that, to the outside world, I looked like a completely normal girl.

But I knew I was an imposter. Deep down under that thick shellacking of conformity, I was still a little freak. And I marveled at the kids who wore their floppy overcoats, talking about Dungeons and Dragons or geeking out about Civil War history right out there in the open. How, I wondered, are they so brave? And why am I such a scared little phony?

I’m guessing from the tone of your letter that, like me, you chose to hide your eccentricities from the world. That the risk of flying your freak flag was too high, so you wadded it up and jammed in the back of some cupboard until maybe you almost forgot it was there. But I worry that, in making that choice, you’ve forgotten a fundamental truth:

It’s okay to be a freak.

For many people, sitting alone in a lunchroom (literally or metaphorically) is an acceptable price to pay for being their authentic selves. Faking it is too confusing or exhausting or demoralizing. Or maybe even impossible. And those of us who put a mask over our weirdness live with feeling ashamed or inauthentic, which is sometimes as uncomfortable as being alone. You had to weigh the trade-off, as did I, and so will your nephew.

I read a parable once suggesting that if you’re a plum, your job is to be the best damn plum you can be. Don’t bother trying to be a banana, because no matter how much you try to stretch out or appear more yellow, you’ll never be more than a mediocre banana. Not everyone likes plums (which is probably why you’re aiming for banana-hood), but some people love them, so find those folks and hold tight to them.

Your letter made me wonder—with a heart brimming over with compassion—whether maybe you are the one driving the Train of Judgment, the one telling him he needs to be a banana. You say that his long hair accentuates the “problem,” but in my neighborhood, his hair wouldn’t stand out at all. Being seven and sensitive wouldn’t cause an eye-blink either, even if it was perhaps emotionally deadly in your childhood neighborhood. And most elementary-aged kids I know are incredibly odd, deeply obsessed with Legos or calligraphy or Japanese cat characters, and capable of discussing the minutiae of their hobby long, long past the waning of their listener’s interest.

So what is our job, if it’s not saving our little ones from that train? Our job is to help our little loved ones be the best damn plum they can be. Even—especially—when the entire world is telling them that plums are lame and bananas are way more delicious.
How? By loving them for their peculiar oddball tics, not despite them.

It’s hard to be the cheese that stands alone. But it’s awesome to be the cheese that stands with another cheese, one who really gets your cheesiness. You could support your nephew’s weirdness. You could help him figure out how his eccentricities can be an asset, how he can be that elementary-school freak who grows up to create a mind-blowing film or thought-provoking article or new technology or—at the very least—fascinating dinner party conversations. Because little freaks can become the most interesting adults, with the help and guidance of grown-ups around them. You could be the other cheese for your nephew, honoring his interests and cheering for him, even—especially—when others call him a freak.

So there’s no point in mentioning his hair. He’ll cut it when—if—he wants to. You can’t prevent him from being his beautifully strange little self. You can only help him learn to live with it in the healthiest way possible.

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