A few years ago I saw a spoof of a motivational poster that said, “Remember, you are unique, just like everyone else.” I had to laugh because it’s a human tendency to want to believe you are unique and special, which is actually a very common desire. I wonder how many of us have ever had the thought that there is no one else in the world who can relate to how we think and feel. Ironically, while we are longing to be unique we also want to be recognized and included as a valued member of a group. We want to belong, but we want to belong on our own terms and be appreciated for the unique qualities that set us apart.
Our children look for groups with which they identify so they can have a sense of belonging. It’s reassuring to know that no matter what, there is a place where you are accepted and where there are people who care about whatever is happening with you. This desire begins in childhood but continues throughout our lifetimes. Life is meant to be lived within the context of relationships, sharing commonalities as well as differences. One of the challenges we face as parents and educators is to help our children forge their own identities without being unduly influenced by those around them.
As the mother of three children, I came to realize that my kids often responded in different ways even when they were in a shared situation. My son, Josh, was usually pretty oblivious to the reactions of those around him. My daughter, Beth, was so sensitive that she read meanings into situations and was easily offended or hurt. My daughter, Beckie, was such an optimist that she made excuses for others even when their behavior was blatantly appalling. In order to help my children learn how to be part of a group while developing their own sense of individuality, I had to recognize that just as each learned academic skills in their own way they developed their personalities differently, too.
Josh, who was diagnosed at a young age with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), has always been an “outside the box” kind of thinker. So far outside, as a matter of fact, that I’m not convinced he ever truly realized there was a “box”. His creativity has always amazed me, and I tried to encourage it because I perceived his unusual perspectives as a wonderful gift. I can’t say I always understood his thought processes, and I certainly was never able to predict what he might say or do next. Yet it gave me great pleasure to see glimpses into how his mind worked and to consider ideas that would never have occurred to me without Josh to introduce them.
Josh’s various ideas and experiments did stretch out our school days, because he never seemed interested or even able to take a direct approach to a task. If there was a scenic route, Josh would take it. If there wasn’t, Josh would forge one and leave the well-worn path to the less adventuresome. He often struggled academically, but he could leave most people in the dust when it came to creativity. As a thoroughly “inside-the-box-and-it’s-probably-taped-up” kind of thinker, I made a point to share with Josh my genuine admiration for his ability to come up with unusual solutions to problems.
I have to admit that I was disappointed when not everyone shared my enthusiasm for Josh’s quirky and unpredictable ideas. Couldn’t they see how special he was? Josh left many adults as well as other children baffled by his thought processes, and he was equally baffled by their lack of understanding as he expressed his ideas. In what I considered a “genius-for-being-inside-the-box” idea, I enrolled Josh in art classes where I was sure his gifts would be recognized and appreciated by someone besides me, his mother.
Josh enjoyed exploring new art mediums. He had many ideas to express, but even in art class he tended to be non-conforming to others’ expectations. When Josh saw how something was done, it seemed to trigger an onslaught of alternative possibilities in his mind. Instead of being embraced, his creative drive in non-traditional directions was met with attempts to redirect him to more specific tasks. As Josh grew older he informed me that, “People expect you to be original while following a strict set of rules.” Apparently Josh was over the top even with other creative types.
If you’ve ever felt like you are just not as creative as a lot of people you know, try to remember that thinking inside the box is not all bad. Creative people need help to make their visions become reality, and those of us who are generally logical and detail-oriented may have just the skill set they need to help those visions become realities. For those of you who are naturally creative, thank you for sharing your unique ideas. While it’s true that in some circles you will be asked to tone it down and “be original while following a strict set of rules”, please know that there are those of us who will continue to admire and applaud you for your originality.