Walk around any high school in Rhode Island and you will see students experimenting with their identity. For some, it is a new make-up style or fashion accessory. For others, figuring out who they are and how they belong is an internal journey. The search for identity asks us to peel back layers, expose vulnerabilities, and recognize the similarities to and differences from our peers. Whether understanding how skin color affects how you are treated, how a gender stereotype may or may not apply to you, or what role your faith plays in your friend groups, elements of identity inform every conversation and interaction. This growing awareness can be both confusing and uncomfortable, and when children feel alone in their experiences—when they think everyone else has it all figured out—it is particularly troubling. In an age when advertising and social media project fabricated views of perfection, how can a teen ever know that others are struggling to figure it out too? In order for kids to develop the self-confidence and empathy that will support their success, we must help them engage in deep and meaningful conversations about identity—their own and others’.
Some elements of identity are easier to discuss than others. Music, sports, and classwork are often the go-to topics between adults and teens. These are good building blocks for conversation because when we ask specific questions about what kids are doing, we are asking them to articulate who they are becoming and who they want to be. We give them an opportunity to process their growing sense of self. On the flip side, if we only discuss what teens disclose comfortably we risk making assumptions based on heavily edited content. We get only part of the story—a part that can mask the real answers.
Historically, formal education in the U.S. has aimed to prepare citizens and train workers. More recently, however, the goal of social mobility has moved to the forefront of educational reform efforts. The abilities to navigate social dynamics, work collaboratively, and apply oneself toward clear objectives have become increasingly important to companies who are hiring the newest members of the workforce. These are the skills that schools and parents must teach their children now—skills that are inextricably linked to issues of diversity and identity.
Discussions about identity can be uncomfortable, but to pretend we are all the same is to deny individuals of their true identities while squandering opportunities to strengthen connections. Rather than shying away from conversations about differences, we must acknowledge the awkwardness, lean into it, and wrestle with it openly. It is only through respectful discourse that we can begin to frame our own perspectives and appreciate other points of view. Then we can start the essential work of narrowing social gaps and becoming more socially nimble.
Finding art, literature, personal narratives, pop icons, and adults in your child’s life that reflect a diversity of experiences will help advance this work. Images of people who do not fit societal stereotypes or expectations help dispel myths. When young adults see how others have navigated diverse paths, they acquire tools to navigate their own. Teens may start to understand that everyone is searching in one way or another. That perfect student on the other side of the room? Struggling. That iconic YouTube star? Searching. Fueling the conversations is hard, but it allows our children to find camaraderie and common ground. The difficult conversations allow children to grow and learn, and most importantly, they help young people figure out who they can and want to be in this world.