As parents, we can’t help but survey our children from two distinct vantage points: from the empathetic adult perspective that sees a vulnerable little person we helped create, and through the lens of our own childhood experiences, some of them painful, which are now being freshly formatted for our child.
When our kid is different—maybe she struggles with dyslexia or is on the spectrum, or he’s obsessively into Japanese manga art to the detriment of all other activities including making many friends—we simultaneously worry and secretly marvel at our offspring. Worry they won’t fully fit in among their peers. Marvel at their uniqueness, and how truly different they are from us. Sometimes, the apple does fall far from the tree. Or at least far away enough to scare us because we tend to fear what we don’t understand.
Our biggest anxiety, of course, is that other kids in the classroom or on the playground deem a child of ours a “loser.” We can still freshly conjure our own urgent scrambles to grab a seat in the schoolyard equivalent of musical chairs. We never wanted to be the one left standing in the cold. Many of us did anything not to be singularly considered. In the homogenous hierarchy that usually reigns during these tender years, being different is like a disease. Other kids don’t want to catch it.
It’s our job as parents not to panic when such a thing occurs. Not to project our own earlier, internal struggles onto our children. This feels near impossible, of course. Because we love them, and we’d do anything not to see them hurt. It tears at our hearts and minds to think of our kids as being easy prey for others.
Thankfully, there’s emotional ammunition at the ready. Malcolm Gladwell, the über-author of best-selling nonfiction including The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, tackles this dilemma in his most recent offering, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which is now available in paperback. In a thoughtful Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast with Wired.com, he addresses the special advantages that often reveal themselves later in life after a kid, who can’t help but go against the grain, grows up.
So, when your loser daughter comes to you, upset that some mean girl outwardly dismissed her with an eye roll because she’s into curating her own sci-fi YouTube channel, or the captain of the football team publicly calls your son a demeaning epithet because he dares to sew his own clothes, here are the researched findings you can quietly reinforce with them, culled from Gladwell’s writings:
1. What seems like a disadvantage is, upon closer inspection, quite often a striking benefit.
Maybe your child can’t read well—but she learns how to delegate to others and creatively problem solve as a result of this so-called setback. Maybe his autism has him seeing the world differently—but he spots subtle shades the rest of us miss, which he brings into his original art. Using the Biblical (and titular) reference of David and Goliath, Gladwell shows us just how wrong we collectively interpret this tale. David’s slingshot, a technological advancement just introduced into marching armies at the time, actually had the firepower of a handgun. Goliath’s massive height suggested he suffered from an inherited condition called acromegaly, which is caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland, that almost always brought with it near-blindness. The story is not truly about a lesser power overcoming a greater one with brave ingenuity, but rather an example of how shortsighted it is to assess ability—and outcomes—too quickly.
2. Kids who follow their hearts are not only happier in the long run because they chose freedom over conformity, they are often more successful—lapping their so-called popular peers.
When we chase the popular crowd, as so many parents press their kids to do, we can miss out on authentic experiences that not only satisfy us but take us further in life. Gladwell uses the college-entrance race as a prime example. Parents often push hard for perfect SAT scores and Ivy League admissions, believing them to be the only sure ticket for their kids’ eventual adult success. They mean well, but the author points out in rebuttal that one must be practically a prodigy to even study physics at Harvard, much less stand out there. But smart-enough kids who attend lesser-name universities often enjoy a more hands-on experience, and then can rise faster and higher while gaining the lab hours they’ll need to land a great position down the line. Meanwhile, the Harvard undergrad may be categorized as a middling physics lemming in such a competitive atmosphere and may even be turned off for good to a field she once loved.
3. Going your own way can be a faster path to recognition than trying to get noticed among millions who take the obvious route.
So your kid’s a comic book geek or can’t get enough of Star Wars. Maybe he openly doodles in class when he should be listening to a lecture. Gladwell reminds us that not everything worth learning in life occurs within the confines of the classroom—and in fact, much of it doesn’t. He uses his own life as an example: He dropped out of his rural Canadian high school and attended a mediocre college, where he frequently blew off class. His focus, however, was obsessively literary—he couldn’t get enough. And we all know how that turned out for this New Yorker scribe. The French Impressionists are another compelling case. These painters, turned on by how changing light alters colors and lines, rendering flowers and haystacks slightly wobbly in their presentation, were soundly rejected by the art world in the late 19th century. At the time, the only way to succeed was by showing work at the Salon, an art exhibit run by the elite who demanded artists conform to realism, and realism only. So the Impressionists chose to set up their own art show that forced people to focus solely on how they did things. Of course, the rest is history.
4. Tough times now are hard. But the old adage about adversity building character—in your kid’s case, a resilient one!—turns out to be true.
How we see ourselves and the world is formed in our childhood, and time and again, research shows this same foundation is the one we take into adulthood. In other words, if our psyches learn how to face adversity early on, we don’t flinch as much when we face additional difficulties—as we all inevitably do—later in life. Gladwell reminds us that an inordinate number of American presidents and British prime ministers are (or were) orphaned as children—an adversity none of us would wish on anyone. Likewise, some of the biggest entrepreneurs in the world had difficult childhoods, too. While loving empathy is in order when your child is experiencing pain at school, remind him that it’s teaching a resilience that he’ll draw upon time and again—and kindness, too, because he’ll go into life knowing how it feels to be bullied, the first lesson (if it’s properly learned) why he should never intentionally target others.
5. Feelings of insecurity often drive motivation—and amazing outcomes.
We all feel insecure at times. Gladwell says insecurity is not such a bad thing, in reasonable doses. In fact, the thought that only remarkable achievement guarantees acceptance can push people. If your kid feels like she has to work a little harder to make it, she just might do that—and exceed all expectations.
Go ahead and tell your child he’s no loser—he’s a diamond in the making. Because even precious gems are roughed up a bit as they’re slowly unearthed, cut and polished. None arrive fully formed. And wouldn’t she rather be a diamond than just another grain of sand?
To listen to the entire podcast, click here.