‘Why am I like this?’
‘Should I be like everyone else around me, or should I explore my uniqueness?’
‘Do I have it in me to stand out or should I just try to fit in?’
‘Would this be awkward if I do it and none of my friends approve of it?’ These are just some of the questions that your young child grapples with as they grow older. There are various facets of identity about themselves that they try to explore, most of which is drawn from their immediate surroundings or impressions – family and/or community. For a young child, her/his immediate environment where they feel safe and cared for becomes their identity. It is through this environment that they explore their individuality, which becomes the building blocks of their character. Gender, social class, ethnicity, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability form the cornerstones of how a child experiences the world around her/him.
In a world, which is increasingly becoming less tolerant, it is important for us as parents to teach our children to celebrate their individuality. But how can parents build a strong sense of identity in their children?
Pay attention when your child wants or tries to communicate with you. This tells your child that they are valued and that it is safe to express views and feelings. It gives them the assurance that they belong to a safe place where their thoughts and feelings are not dismissed. As they grow older, it will shape how they communicate with others. A healthy relationship helps create a foundation for a strong sense of identity in your child.
Let them explore and experience
There is no greater gift for a child than a chance for them to experience something new and explore. While toys can keep them engaged, a walk in new terrain or climbing up a tree can be a magical experience. The more you let your child experience new things and places, the more it will help to shape her/his identity and personality. Not only would they learn more, but they will also gain a new perspective to look at themselves and their surroundings.
Let your child make occasional decisions around the house, and for her/himself. It will teach them to become responsible for their own actions and decisions in the longer run. Encourage your child to solve problems and teach them how to keep at it when they want to give up. The best way to inculcate patience is through games like puzzles and board games or colouring and drawing, where they can see the results but not immediate gratification. This will help your child in independent decision-making, and stay resilient, as s/he grows older.
Respect your child’s choices, even if they are different from the ‘norm’. If you as parents accept your child’s choices, s/he will feel more secure to face the world. Teach them that it is perfectly fine to be different and that they need to respect others who are different from them – whether it be a person with a different sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, etc. You can talk to your child about different cultures, people, etc and provide them opportunities to interact with different people. Tell your child that ‘labels’ are nothing but a form of bullying that needs to be avoided and reported.
Failure teaches more to a person than success ever does. Allow your child to falter, for it would mean they will try harder the next time. Let them explore what they s/he is truly interested and invested in, and thus, become a confident learner.
A stronger foundation will help your child have a well-rounded personality. These steps will ensure that your kid sees beyond labels and appreciates each person as unique, including her/himself.
Ananya is a WFH mother based in Delhi.