Unlike this time last year, many of us are moving into this winter with our core routines modified but intact. Most kids are back in school, work expectations are back on full tilt, and we are more likely to be participating in activities and community events.
In other words, we are back, in the words of psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, in “each other’s social traffic patterns.”
The painful truth is that being surrounded by people doesn’t necessarily mean that we feel connected.
But that doesn’t mean that the roads feel smooth or the routes entirely clear. There are certainly no shortages of roadblocks, detours, and potholes. The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with other leaders dedicated to the care of kids and teens, recently issued a declaration of emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Global uncertainty, the pandemic, and the impacts of racism are ongoing. Communities across the country are navigating significant social and political division. Yet meeting kids’ high emotional and academic needs requires extra teamwork and collaboration at home and at school.
It turns out that being out in traffic patterns doesn’t mean that we know how to be together.
A recent conversation with a parent illustrated this point on a smaller scale. She shared, “My kid says that he likes being back in school because it is more engaging and he has better access to special education services…but honestly I am worried he is just as lonely this fall as he was online last year. He just has trouble fitting in sometimes.”
It makes sense that this parent is worried. She is observing the painful truth that being surrounded by people doesn’t necessarily mean that we feel connected. The reality though is that this often has less to do with “trouble fitting in” and more to do with barriers to belonging.
The Importance of Belonging
We spent the better part of last year figuring out creative ways to be physically distanced yet socially connected. But our social needs are not met by just being in proximity to others. Our fundamental need is to belong.
The research is clear. A sense of belonging in our schools, families, online, and at work has been linked to better stress management, stronger relationships, higher levels of motivation and achievement, and greater feelings of happiness and optimism. In contrast, being ignored or ostracized puts us at higher risk of mental illness, poor physical health, and feelings of hopelessness.
The challenge is that belonging isn’t measured by simply participating in activities like eating dinner together as a family, showing up to a school building, or joining a group. Belonging is measured by how we feel about ourselves and others once we get there.
Fitting in can actually get in the way of experiencing belonging if it means that our kids are concealing or diminishing important parts of themselves to do so.
Belonging vs. Fitting In
While it is easy to worry that our kids won’t “fit in,” it’s clear from the research that fitting in is far less important than belonging. Indeed, fitting in can actually get in the way of experiencing belonging if it means that our kids are concealing or diminishing important parts of themselves to do so.
We human beings experience belonging when we share connection with those around us while staying true to ourselves. In contrast, too often kids try to fit in with their peers by hiding, downplaying, or altering themselves. This can actually lead to more feelings of loneliness or disconnection.
As researcher Brené Brown notes, “Belonging is being accepted for being you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”
“I Like You Just the Way You Are”
While many parents and educators know that questions of fitting in and belonging accelerate in early adolescence, even very young children are asking questions like, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” Just take it from Mister Rogers, who knew how important it was for children to know that “I like you just the way you are.”
From early childhood through adolescence, kids need us to consistently communicate that “Your whole self is welcome here. Your strengths, your struggles, your identities, your spark, and your dark. All of you.”
The wisdom of Mister Rogers holds as our kids grow. Educator and author Alex Shevrin Venet shares how essential it is for kids to experience “unconditional positive regard” from adults at school for both their mental health and academic growth. According to Shevrin Venet, the message of unconditional positive regard is, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.”
This means that we don’t do kids any favors by ignoring what makes them who they are or who they are becoming. Kids deserve to feel included and valued because of, not in spite of, their interests, struggles, identities, histories, and experiences. This also means attending to the persistent toxins to belonging as they show up – from mental health stigma to ableism to transphobia to racism.
Of course raising or teaching kids can be very frustrating and challenging sometimes. Stress in particular can escalate challenging behaviors and often makes it harder to sustain unconditional positive regard. Yet this is when kids need it most. This is why we need to make sure that we are communicating that “what you have done is inappropriate” instead of “who you are is unacceptable.”
Unconditional parents and teachers accept kids for who they are, not what they do.
Let’s Prioritize Belonging
There is still a lot of talk about resilience as we head into another challenging winter. Too often we think of resilience as an individual trait that we either have or don’t have. Or we frame it as something that we can just dig for and conjure up when needed. The research, however, paints a very different picture. As the Harvard Center on the Developing Child reminds us, “Resilience requires relationships, not rugged individualism.”
We human beings – kids and adults alike – are hardwired to connect. Connection creates a protective buffer around us for life’s hardest moments. It also gives us the safety and security we need to take risks, learn, and grow.
While our traffic patterns are certainly bringing us into closer proximity to each other, this doesn’t inevitably lead to connection and belonging. Only deliberate work will make sure that we really belong to ourselves and each other.
Building Belonging at Home – Getting Started
- Talk to kids about the difference between “belonging” and “fitting in.” Kids of all ages need reminders that “you are loved just the way you are.” As researcher Brené Brown encourages, we can talk to our kids openly about ways to build a “belonging family” verses a “fitting-in” family. If anyone feels on the outside of friends or groups, how do we encourage each other to continue to show up as and for ourselves?
- Notice your reactions. Some of us were raised to fit in or faced significant challenges because we didn’t fit in. In this case, it can be very stressful to watch our kids show up in ways that don’t fit our perception of the norm. Try saying, “When I was a kid I was taught that I needed to fit in (to stay safe, to be loved, to make friends, etc…). I want to teach you a different way. Let’s practice together.” Prepare to respond with love and care when kids share things that are important to them. For example, “I don’t have words for everything right now but this is what I do know: I love you and I am so grateful you shared this with me.”
- Acknowledge that building or seeking belonging is brave. If parts of our kids’ identities, abilities, or experiences aren’t centered or supported, acknowledge how painful this can be. Belonging often requires that we stand up for ourselves and what we believe in even when it is hard. Remind kids that they deserve to experience belonging.
- Cultivate curiosity and listen to understand. It’s easy to slip into thinking we know all there is to know about our kids (and each other!). Curiosity helps us pause our assumptions in order to listen, observe, and learn. When we model this kind of curiosity within our families, our kids are more likely to stay curious and open to the opinions and experiences of others well.
- Flush out toxins to belonging. Building spaces of belonging means raising kids who can practice empathy, stand for compassion, build authentic relationships, and are able to disrupt actions or words that are unfair or hurtful. This includes helping kids “spot and stop” different forms of bias through stories, conversation, and active skill building.
- Practice emotional courage. The lessons we learn about feelings are powerful. From a very young age we are taught in both spoken and unspoken ways which feelings (and associated behaviors) are welcome and which aren’t. Instead of punishing or avoiding emotions, coach them instead. This is a time to prioritize raising emotionally courageous kids.
- Tell family stories. Belonging is about knowing that we are connected to each other. Throughout childhood and adolescence, kids are busily asking questions like, “Who are we? What do we care about? How do we take care of each other?” Family stories can highlight the unique strengths and gifts of each person in the family and highlight the ways that we have navigated uncertainty, challenge and joy together. The best part? You can add new chapters as you go.
- Create family rituals. Family rituals are sometimes referred to as the “glue that holds families together.” Seeing parenting rituals as glue acknowledges reminds us that ritual and connection aren’t about perfection. It is about making spaces for relationship and repair – the things that hold us together. Start with something small, memorable, repeatable, and clear. It could be something that you say, a place you go, something you do, listen to, or read together. There is no right or wrong here, because parenting rituals are unique to you.
While our traffic patterns are certainly bringing us into closer proximity to each other, this doesn’t inevitably lead to connection and belonging.
Only deliberate work will make sure that we really belong to ourselves and each other.