If you ever find yourself searching within for the person you used to be—for that authentic part of yourself with dreams and passions, curiosities and innocence—you may want to look back to the fifth grade.
I’ve spent some time this year getting reacquainted with the fifth grade, and it seems this is a pivotal time for a person’s sense of self.
This is the year, my anecdotal evidence suggests, when fitting in becomes more important than being yourself; that gossip flourishes and bonds of trust are broken; that what’s cool is narrowly defined and pursued at all costs; that masks are constructed; that the need to protect oneself from ridicule is paramount; and that truth is buried underneath the latest trends, layers of protection, and the deep desire to be accepted.
Until the fifth grade, these 10- and 11-year-olds were a diverse group of individuals with varying interests, talents, quirks, and personalities. Now it is these differentiating characteristics that are being muted in the name of sheer conformity.
It seems that in the fifth grade, the most rebellious act is to be yourself.
Many adults can understand that somewhere along the way this happens—that fitting in is given such a high priority, one is willing to completely lose sight of oneself to achieve it. It’s not until later in life that many look up and realize they’ve drifted off their path. They’re lost and they need to dig through the protective layers to find themselves again.
What if we could nip this in the bud—this compulsion to pretend, to protect, to be something other than the true self—before it sets in?
When their children reach this age, parents may begin to feel it is time to let go and be less involved in their child’s affairs. I suggest that this is a critical time to provide support and guidance to our children.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Here are a few ways to encourage your fifth grader to hang on to the truth within:
Set the Scene
The fact that their peers are actively molding themselves to be like everybody else may not be obvious to your children. Help them to recognize in themselves this urge to pretend. Celebrate the characteristics that are unique to them. Share your experiences at their age and talk about times when you did or did not remain true to yourself (and the consequences of those decisions).
Admit the Challenge
There’s no doubt about it—it takes great strength to navigate such pre-adolescent waters mask-free. Acknowledge your children’s strength and actively reinforce their self-confidence.
In some cases, children at this stage of life will directly face real cruelty from their peers. This would be challenging for an adult to face, but for a child of 10 or 11, it can seem truly disastrous.
Help your children understand that they cannot control the behavior of others, but they can control their reaction to that behavior. This is not easy at this age, but open communication about this and a lot of hugs can help.
Encourage your children to celebrate the unique qualities of others, and celebrate them for who they are. Encourage your children to extend kindness—especially to those who may be struggling in this environment. Explain the toxicity of gossip to your children and encourage them to never engage in it.
When it comes to those unique interests and passions of your children, support and pursue the exploration of those as deeply as possible. Help your children to feel more joy from their authentic strengths and interests, and this in turn should help outweigh the need to fit in. This can combat the idea that one’s self-worth is completely tied up in the state of one’s social environment.
Encourage Keeping a Journal
This is a great age for children to begin writing each day. This stage in life can bring about many emotional ups and downs. A journal can provide a safe space to let it all out and organize one’s thoughts.
Children of this age may prefer writing in a private journal, or one that is shared with parents, or both. An outlet such as this can provide relief and courage all at once.
The fifth grade is an interesting time. Don’t let it be the time your child loses sight of who he or she is. Rather, aim to let this be the year that inner strength is developed and his or her true self is allowed to shine forth into the future.