What does it mean to live authentically and to raise kids who are true to themselves?
We’ve just come off of several years of mask wearing during this global pandemic to serve as a barrier between ourselves and those infamous aerosols that contain the coronavirus. Yet, it’s likely we’ve worn invisible masks for much longer. We begin putting them on as early as third grade when our social awareness raises as well as our social anxiety. We begin to become self-conscious. Other children snicker at our high-water pants, our crooked nose, our skin color or our snorty laugh — anything that might call attention, that might be slightly different from the factory-mold of the day. And we fashion our first mask – our first line of defense against the contagion of judgment, criticism and dashed expectations for a perceived perfection.
In fact, there’s a distinct benefit to our layers of invisible masks. Brene Brown in “Daring Greatly” writes, “we need to feel trust to be vulnerable and we need to be vulnerable in order to feel trust.”1 So at times, the masks we wear serve as important guard rails. They offer our hopes and dreams protection against potentially harmful criticisms that may seek to destroy them.
Last year, I had to change my diet drastically to find out why I was feeling so badly. My doctor recommended an elimination diet in which you remove many aspects of what you eat and pair it down to simple whole foods and then, one by one gradually add in what you’ve removed to see which foods have an adverse effect. The pandemic, in a sense, has given us a social elimination diet opportunity. We paired down to our home and our immediate family in these past years and now have been adding back in more and more friends, extended family and a range of work and social engagements. This social elimination diet has given us a chance to discover which aspects of our engagement in the world fit our sense of who we are and why we are here and which do not.
The writings and research on what it means to be authentic and act with authenticity go back to Socrates who said the “unexamined” life was not worth living. When it comes to understanding what authenticity is, the research refers to a range of concepts including well-being, ethics and contributing to the higher good, self-understanding, integrity in interpersonal relationships and yes – confidence.2 Aristotle explained living authentically as “an archer with a target to aim at,” or uncovering your unique sense of purpose and consistently orienting your life toward it.3
As we re-engage in social and work engagements of all kinds, we bring a fresh perspective. And in our privileged culture, we often have choices – granted, some of us more than others. As we watch our children or teens taking on new social and school engagements, we can watch and support them with fresh eyes as well. Does this activity deeply align with their passions and deepest curiosities? Does it contribute to a higher good? And what is that higher good for them and us? These are all questions that we can ignore as we place our social invisible masks back on our face. But why? If we’ve taken advantage of the many moments we’ve had at home to look deeply inside and uncover our purpose, then the important questions is — how can we live and socialize and contribute in the world at times, unmasked? How can we bring our whole selves to our community tables — unapologetic about who we are, why we are here and how we are going about contributing to a higher good while respectful and accepting of others’ whole selves and core purpose.
Social and work obligations, expectations and judgments tend to be the frenemy of authenticity. They can snap our masks back on our face in the blink of an eye. But pausing, returning to calm and allowing the rippling waters to settle allows us back into the depths of who we are and why we are here. And we have to continually return to that place of calm to ask those essential questions of ourselves. Why? To what end? After all, at the end of the day, we have to answer to ourselves in the mirror. Were you true to yourself and your inner guidance? Were you?
I watch as my teenager grapples with social overload – too much activity, too much social time. And he feels anger without really understanding why. That anger comes from giving himself away to others when he knows he needs time to replenish, to be quiet, to engage in activities he loves and to regenerate his ability to be social.
As parents, living a life of reflective authenticity – aligning our actions with our purpose and how we are contributing to a higher good – offers all of the modeling needed to bolster social and emotional intelligence in our children. It requires us to self-regulate impulsive actions and consider if and how we show up. As our children and teens formulate their growing and changing identity, they require that modeling. We worry about how peer pressure might impact them and their choices particularly in the teen years when adult-level risks become accessible but that peer pressure is equally powerful in the adult years. If we succumb and give ourselves away straying from our values, our purpose, our sense of higher good, how can we possibly expect our children to resist the judgements and expectations of peers who will eagerly guide them in any number of directions?
It turns out being authentic and acting authentically is a tricky issue, one in which we, as adults, tend to question ourselves time and again. Just yesterday, a dear friend asked me about a difficult work decision she had to make. “Do I go with my gut or preserve relationships?” She already knew the answer when she asked it but often, the consequences to relationships feels severe. We know we cannot be fully vulnerable to others at all times. That would compromise our safety and perhaps, the safety of others. Boundaries remain critical in all healthy relationships. So how do we help our child or teen navigate their growing identity in ways in which they feel a sense of authenticity? Here are some ideas.
Elementary-Aged Children (ages 6-10)
Our elementary-aged children are developing a newfound social awareness, practicing understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, necessarily making mistakes as with any new skill. Depending upon the culture a child is living and schooling in, they can tend toward exclusivity or inclusivity. What are you most promoting at home? And what is most promoted in your child’s school culture? How are peers discussed in both places? If there’s criticism being voiced of others, that exclusive environment is teaching your child about ways to shut down others authenticity – which also shuts down their own. They won’t feel safe. So how can you review how you discuss people outside of your home in family life? Can you assume best intentions and the goodness in others and focus on problems themselves and not on individuals and their character?
If you reflect on your child’s school culture and realize that there exists an exclusive culture or a culture where aggression and judgment of others is permitted, even encouraged, what can you do? Begin by getting involved and asking supportive questions. Approach the parent teacher association. Ask how you might work to support a more safe, caring school culture. There are many ways in which parents can contribute if they ask these simple questions and offer their time and support. Here are more ideas on how you can get involved in creating a safe, caring community culture in your child’s school.
Middle School Students (ages 11-14)
Middle school is a unique time of reformation for your tween or teen. Not only are they undergoing significant physical changes, they are also undergoing a brain reconstruction which amounts to major social and emotional upheavals too. We sense it. And they may hide in their room seeking privacy during this highly vulnerable time when they are defining their identity in a wholly new way as they work toward independence. Major questions at this age are: what do you love to do and how can we invest time and energy in supporting what you love to do? Who do you love to spend time with? And how much is too much? Our tweens and teens want to spend their primary waking hours with their friends. They also have more homework, more need to study, more extracurriculars and opportunities for involvement. Add to that fact, they have not yet figured out time management skills and it can become a challenging time. They need your support in figuring out what balance of activities and down time or home time is right for them to feel safe and able to give their best. Learn more about how you can teach them time management skills and create a more balanced schedule.
This is also an ideal time to point them inside when they are grappling with tough issues. Instead of fixing their problems for them, encourage them to take time to be quiet, to deeply consider their feelings. We did this recently when our fourteen-year-old had a tough choice to make. He came back after an evening of consideration and surprised us with his thoughtful choice. We’re all better after sleeping on a thorny issue. Letting those waters calm, going inside and reflecting brings us to a place of knowing what’s true for us and we no longer need to debate.
Additionally, they need your encouragement and support on the loves, passions and interests they hold dear that may not be considered cool, mainstream or acceptable in their social circles. How can they continue to follow those passions in ways that keep them sacred? What social injustices do they feel deeply and can they champion or continue to learn about? These are the early building blocks of their sense of purpose that are critical to nurture as they develop.
High School Students (ages 14-17)
High school is a time when students will spend the majority of their time out of the house often at school involved in extracurriculars, attending events, spending time with their friends or taking on part-time work. Though all of these will strongly influence your teens’ developing sense of identity, you are still a critical influence. They will come home at times needing emotional support as they retreat from the world. And though it will test our resolve, our teens also need us to set boundaries kindly and firmly when we see that outside forces are crossing lines we know are important to maintain. What do we need to agree to when our teen is out at night with friends? What kind of boundaries are critical when borrowing the car? Though situations become more complex, our teens need us to talk through with them the complexities of each to understand how we decide on what’s fair, what’s in the interest of the higher good and how we bring our family’s authenticity to the discussion. This is the very heart of developing responsible decision-making skills requiring higher order thinking and lots of practice. Check out more on how to begin to facilitate your teen in thinking about their sense of purpose in life.
For all of these ages and stages – in addition to our modeling – we also need to notice, recognize and celebrate when our children, tweens and teens offer their vulnerability through a close friendship, an art project, a performance, or a confession of a secret passion. We have to demonstrate that they can feel safe with us to share those secret passions and we will care for them just as they do.
Masks have been important in keeping us safe and will continue to be. But what is the point in living if we cannot truly show who we are to those we love and care about? There is no end of the rainbow in being and becoming authentic. Clearly, it’s an ongoing process for us to continue to work at, strive for and commit to. But I do believe it’s the work of confident parents. To support our children and ourselves in bringing the best of who we are to help, to serve, to contribute to the world around us.
- Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly; How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. NY, NY: Gothan Books, Penguin Group.
- Goldman, B.M. & Kernis, M.H. (2006). Authenticity Inventory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38: 0065-2601.
- Irwin, T.H. (2003). Aristotle; Nicomachean Ethics (367-323 BC); A sort of political science. In J.E. Garcia, G.M. Reichberg, & B.N. Schumacher (Eds), The classics of western philosophy: A reader’s guide (pp. 56-69). Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.