Friday, February 16, 2001

Kids 'fitting in' not an issue - yet

By Patricia Gallagher Newberry
Enquirer contributor

        By the time my children head off to college, I hope they have the wherewithal and wits to avoid some of what I see at one of Ohio's best universities each week.

        I hope my girls have learned that the clothes they wear and the hairstyles they sport can hide their true selves as easily as showcase them.

        I hope my son has learned that the label on his jacket or the nameplate on his bumper say more about who he aspires to be than who he really is.

        I hope my children have developed a taste for knowledge and not just a hunger for good grades.

        I hope they have developed a passion for service and not just a strategy for a resume.

        I hope they have acquired a circle of friends and a love of self that dulls the attraction of drinking, smoking, drugging and meaningless romance.

        In short, I hope my husband and I will have adequately prepared our offspring to be intelligent, thoughtful, self-assured and successful adults in a chaotic and threatening world.

        The size of the task sometimes scares the bejesus out of me.

        One of the student newspapers at Miami University recently wrote about the so-called “Miami image.”

        There are the tight black pants, the cell phones, the Abercrombie & Fitch garb and the pricey SUVs, the author wrote. If you've got them, you've got the Miami image. If you don't — and more than 40 percent in one survey didn't think they did — your self-esteem probably takes a few dinks each day on the Oxford campus.

        I see it everyday in my classroom.

        The students who fit the image dress a certain way, talk a certain way, interact a certain way. Those without the clothes, the hair, the bod — in short, the “look” — are marginalized. And it's often that population that develops drinking or eating problems in their effort to soothe the pain or join the crowd.

        I interviewed a student last year who doesn't fit the Miami mold. He shaves his head, dresses like a punk and, by the way, writes circles around most of his peers. He told me he is routinely hassled around campus, especially by fraternity members, solely for his appearance.

        I would not mind at all if my children follow that student's path. I won't be bothered — well, not much — if my son shaves his head and pierces his body if it is to create his own identity. I won't be alarmed if my daughters reject the “J. Crew U” look for a style of their own making.

        At their ages, my kids don't yet spend much energy on their looks or their “reps.” Frances complains if I make her wear a uniform blouse with puffy sleeves, A.J. favors T-shirts with cartoon characters and Beatrice, of late, has been pretty demanding about her hair accessories. Aside from that, my kids, at 7, 5 and 2, take little care in projecting an image.

        But I know that will change. Like some of their pals, they will soon demand certain sneakers or haircuts or backpacks considered cool. They will, one day, be distraught over their skin or their weight or the fact that their mother drives an 8-year-old SUV without Eddie Bauer detailing. They will, at some point, be worried about whether they fit in.

        I know this because I remember this. As a chunky kid with oily skin and friends who, like me, never made the A list, I sometimes felt like I was on the fringe and that sometimes made me feel bad.

        But I also know that giving up the struggle to fit some image of how to dress or act or think is liberating. Doing so gave me a whole lot of time to write and sew and act and play the clarinet and do lots of other nerdy, wonderful things.

        As a parent, I certainly want the best for my kids. And, in fact, I would be delighted if they ended up as high-achieving Miami college students.

        Between now and then, I hope to help them discover who they are and how to stay true to those persons — regard of their shapes or looks or how many Abercrombie pullovers they own.
       Patricia Gallagher Newberry's column appears every other week. She welcomes mail at or The CincinnatiEnquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.



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