I was in a shopping mall several years ago and saw a little pack of Jr. High girls heading in my direction. There were three of them and they were wearing matching black T-shirts with some bright neon message emblazoned across the front. They were bopping along pretty excited to be at the mall with each other. As they approached, I was able to make out the message on their matching black T-shirts, “Dare To Be Different.” These sweet young girls were all daring to be different-together.
I would guess that one of girls found the shirt, liked it and showed one of her other friends. This friend immediately wanted to join her, “in being different.” This left friend number three who certainly did not want to be left out of the “daring to be different club.” All three girls could now proudly proclaim to the world, their bold commitment to become unique individuals. At age 13, fashion, friendship and identity swirl around in some interesting ways.
Two very different and important things are typically being sorted out in early and middle adolescents: Social Competence and Identity Development. The fact that these tasks often overlap and contradict each other makes it a somewhat confusing process; picture trying to read a map on a Merry-go Round.
Social Competence is one of the issues Tweens and Teens are trying to define and develop. In this age group, kids are typically asking themselves “What is good about me?” and “Who likes me?” Groups begin to form and separate from one another, “Popular girls”, “Smart girls”, “Athletic girls”, “Wild girls”. The Social Stakes are high, and the competition is fierce. The fear of “getting voted off the Island” at the next “Tribal Council” is not uncommon.
Identity Development is a search and discovery process. Adolescents are often “trying on” different identities hoping to find one that fits well. This can be a scary, messy and exhausting process. It is also a necessary and critical step in becoming a healthy young adult. There are no short cuts, easy answers or guarantees for them or for us. Without a real identity to integrate and direct our lives, we are left with nothing but a collection of appetites and fears to guide us.
The slogan on those matching T-shirts turns out to be good and necessary advice. Those Jr. High girls in the mall were beginning a dangerous and beautiful journey, together. As fathers, we can and should be on this journey as well. If it helps, think of this as the Ultimate Road Trip, you just don’t get to do all the driving. A few reminders as you go:
- Good questions are sometimes better than good answers
- Use kind words
- Have some fun, laughter is good for everyone involved
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Don Worcester