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Children's author Christian Darkin on why being independent is healthy for children

Kids learn by copying, but at the same time they only grow by doing things their own way.  Perhaps that’s why it makes me slightly uncomfortable when I see the fanatical pressure kids get put under to be ‘team players’, as if the only thing that matters is how well you conform to the rules other people set for you.  

It’s not a pressure they need. A million generations of evolution has seen to it that we’re all ‘team players’ by default. We’re hardwired to seek approval, and work together. What we need to learn is how to be independent. How to have our own thoughts and ideas regardless of what any ‘team’ may be telling us is right. But that stuff is tough to teach and even harder to learn.

All the best people are a bit strange

A lot of the characters in my books are a bit strange. I think this is because, frankly, all the best people are. I never quite got on with the stories in which happy bands of chums cooperated to solve mysteries and have adventures. For me, it’s the outsiders who do the really amazing things.

The children who don’t fit the mold often do well later in life. Ed Sheeran famously described himself as the weird kid in his school. He put it down to a stutter. Sir Ranulph Fiennes was nearly driven to suicide by bullies at Eton. Bill Clinton talks in his memoirs about being picked on for his dress sense and Dan Aykroid was expelled from two schools before being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.  

But being weird is not necessarily about quantifiable, diagnosable symptoms. It’s perfectly possible to find, as I did, that you simply don’t fit with whatever is the overriding culture of where you happen to be. For me, I found myself in the lower grades at school, studying metalwork and engineering - where I clearly wasn’t suited, but I lacked the academic results to be placed in classes where the subjects and the other pupils would have been more in tune with me. And that was enough to place me in an uncomfortable dead-space in the minds of pupils and teachers throughout most of my school career.   

There doesn’t have to be a reason, and looking for a ‘problem’ you can ‘fix’ isn’t always the best way forward. Sometimes, a child just has to grow until they work out how to take their own route.

By the time we get to be adults, we instinctively know that most people who appear to be normal have to put so much effort into acting normal that they just don’t have the emotional headspace for anything else (at least, those of us who are normal enough to recognise that we’re weird know that).  

When you’re growing up, it’s not so easy, because, almost by definition, learning to stand alone will not make you popular. If you’re the kind of person who does things their own way, you will almost certainly hit problems. Others won’t understand why you can’t just tow the line, and you yourself, at least early on, probably won’t be able to explain it either. It’ll often come out as loneliness, anger, or stubbornness.

If they’re picked on online for being different then it can be even more personal than when it happens in real life.

Nowadays, it's often online that young people share a more essential, more vulnerable side of themselves. They talk about what they feel, what they love, and what inspires them in a much more open way than they would even among friends, so, if they’re picked on online for being different then it can be even more personal than when it happens in real life.

But bullying is only one danger. In some ways, validation online can be almost as harmful as rejection. When someone still in the process of growing their personality shares something, and is instantly flooded with messages of support and encouragement it can feel a little like winning the lottery. There’s a danger of this feeling turning a vague idea they're playing with in their mind into a something which defines them. If you spend a lot of time thinking and worrying alone then any validation can be overwhelming and well-meaning friends and relatives, wishing only to understand and reassure you when you don't yet understand yourself, can be confusing in itself.

Of course, it’s easy to say all this, and it’s not much help when you’re going through it or know someone who is. Our children live in a world where it can feel as though the number of likes on your Instagram post is the most important thing in the world, and growing up with your individuality intact is tough. Not everybody makes it.

The good news is that if you do end up discovering that you’re a bit weird, then it will, in the end, turn out to be your greatest strength - and the second most important thing you ever learn.  

The most important will be that everyone else is a bit weird too. They're all just acting normal.

:: Christian Darkin is the author of the Act Normal series of chapter books.  To keep in touch, 'like' him on Facebook.