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The Least Helpful Advice We Give Kids: Be Yourself

Looking back, do you know what I remember as the worst advice I received as a child?

No, it wasn’t to stop making that face because otherwise it might stay that way; it wasn’t to avoid “scary” strangers (who almost never exist).  It certainly wasn't the DARE advice to avoid the "future killing" drug that each of our last four presidents and pretty much everyone around me has smoked.

It was to “be myself.”

Don't misunderstand me.  This isn’t a “poor, lost me” column.  I actually think I’m pretty good at knowing myself; maybe I’m fooling myself.  Because even now, at 37-years old and a Dad to triplets, I’m just beginning to figure out what "be yourself" might mean.  How we expect kids to know who “they are” at 8-years old, or especially 15-years old, is beyond me.  I’m not even sure you can “be yourself” at 8-years old.

But this advice strikes me as especially unhelpful when told to high school kids about dating.  Who hasn't, when faced with the prospect of how to act on a date, been told to "just be yourself."  Was this just my parents doing this?  Because it strikes me as a pretty big parental cop out.  We have no answers and so we give our children this rote response and send them off, no better informed, and in fact more confused, then when they came to us.  We've sent them off to fight the forest fire that is hormonal teen dating and as a tool we've given them a hammer.  Helpful.

At 15-years old I’m pretty sure I found the advice to “be myself” on a date useless.  Looking back, I’m sure I didn’t find it useful.  How could I?  Who the hell was I at 15?  How did I know?  How was I supposed to know?   
Do we really want 15-year olds to be "themselves"?Like all 15-year olds I was a partially formed person.  I had tasted perhaps a bare ten percent of the world.  I had come away liking even less than that small percentage.  How was I to know that “myself” wasn’t locked somewhere in that remaining 90 percent?

You know who I was at 15? 

I was a hormonal, impulsive, unsure teenager.  Did anyone really want me to be that?  There is a reason we don’t let 15-year olds drive.  In Pennsylvania we are so strongly sure that 15-year olds don’t know how to act that we increased the age for getting a driver’s license.  Heck, we don’t even permit people to vote until they reach 21-years old.  That should tell you something.


By the time the advice of “be yourself” is of any use, its probably not the type of thing you would tell someone.

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