I blame Lady Gaga. Now, whenever I correct my kids’ behavior or flat out tell them to do something differently from the way they’re doing it, I get a big-eyed stare in return, and an innocent, “I was born that way.”
Well, actually, technically, yes. Everyone is born a certain way. But then, many of those ways need to be changed.
For instance, are you still in diapers? Do you still eat with your hands? Do you fling yourself upon the ground, pound your fists and howl when you don’t get the test grade you wanted? Do you grab shiny objects out of other people’s hands and shriek, “Mine, mine, mine?” Do you bite when you get frustrated? Do you pee in the middle of the street? Do you point on the subway and announce, “That lady is so fat, she’s taking up two whole seats!” Those were all things you were born to do.
We have a saying in my family of five that we whip out whenever anyone is going to a job/internship/school interview, an audition/try-out, or even a social occasion.
That saying is, “Don’t be yourself!”
Many a parent—or even non-parent—I’ve shared this with has been horrified. Does that mean I do not encourage my children to be their true, genuine, authentic selves at all times? Wasn’t I worried about their mental health, their repressed self-expression, and, most importantly, their self-esteem?
For a couple of reasons.
1. They know the edict doesn’t apply just to them, but, most frequently, to their father and I. They also know how many jobs (yes, in the plural) both he and I have lost because we were a little too much ourselves.
2. The New York Times backs me up, writing, on June 5, 2016, “Unless You’re Oprah ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” Their basic premise was: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken. The piece goes on to observe that this is especially true of women in the workplace. Personally, I didn’t even need to reach the workplace to know that. I learned back in college, where expressing the wrong opinion (i.e. Israel has a right to exist, Communism is not the greatest political system ever and we should not all switch over to it right this very minute) could and would earn you a lower grade. My husband is not a woman but, luckily, as an African-American man, he learned the exact same lesson growing up, so that by the time we met, we were on the same page (though, obviously, we both still screw up from time to time, see lost jobs, above).
3. The children. The children and their self-esteem. Here’s the thing: We believe self-esteem has to be earned, not given. And the only way to earn self-esteem is through achieving something. And how do you achieve (any)thing? By giving the person in charge of whatever it is you wish to achieve (grade, job, award, top rating on Yelp) what they want from you. And, yes, sometimes that includes keeping your authentic self… to yourself.
Now, obviously, everyone should decide for themselves how badly they want something and how much they’re willing to give up for it. But that’s very different from feeling entitled to dig in your heels in and announce, “This is me, take it or leave it,” then expressing genuine shock that they chose to leave it.
And even kids know that they behave differently depending on the situation. When my oldest mouthed off to me in a particularly obnoxious manner, then whipped out the, “I was born this way,” defense, I asked him, “Did you act this way on your last college interview?”
“No,” he admitted sheepishly.
In fact, he’d just finished talking to an Admissions person over the phone. I deliberately left the room so as to give him his privacy, but I heard some snatches of what he said and how he said it. His younger brother even observed, “He sounds so smart and responsible when he’s talking to colleges!”
“Yes,” I sighed, asking my oldest son, “Why don’t I get to talk with Phone You more often?”
Now, obviously, home is different from a professional or even social situation. Home is precisely where you can be more yourself (it’s why my husband and I got married, we got each other in a way nobody else did—or appreciated). But up to a point. I let my son mouth off to me in a way he wouldn’t dream of to an Ivy League representative, but I also demand a certain level of respect, no matter how much pressure he’s under. And the same goes for his brother and sister.
Sorry, Stefani Germanotta, my kids might have been born that way, but no way am I allowing them to become little monsters.