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Who Am I? Parents As Model-Influencers: Guiding and Listening to Their Kids’ Individual and Unique Identity

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“A positive sense of identity is crucial to the development of self-esteem and confidence. Children who feel worthy and capable are more likely to be optimistic and to do well in school. A healthy sense of identity also helps children to be more open to people from other backgrounds because they are less likely to fear differences or put other children down to feel better about themselves . . . “. (Supporting Healthy Identity Development Excerpt from A Place to Begin: Working with Parents on Issues of Diversity Dora Pulido-Tobiassen and Janet Gonzalez-Mena California Tomorrow, rpt. Early Childhood Equity Alliance,1999).

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, Ch. 11, 629.)

Identity: this seemingly simple word which possesses different meanings reflects older and newer meanings and applications. All cultures have unique definitions and understanding of this word. Succinctly put, identity and how adults understand and define themselves integrally weave into each other.

What about our kids?

Does identity affect our kids and their futures even before they themselves are consciously aware of the word and its meaning? Parents, of course, are aware of identity and its importance for kids. That said, consciously thinking about how parents go about helping kids understand, identify, and construct their own unique identity isn’t often discussed nor written about outside of journal articles. And yet, kids constantly encounter identity in so many formats outside and inside home: social media, entertainment, community, education, activities, social gatherings, and travel—in all its iterations.

This blog aims to help parents become more aware of their role in observing and listening to their kids—how kids see, hear, and process information, as well as inquire. Additionally, the blog aims at helping parents see and adapt to how theyhelp mold, shape, and influence kids’ identity, while also encouraging individuality and voice/perspective. Suggested family activities conclude the blog.

“Dad and Me” from John Grassie’s 2019-20 photo-journal COVID project

Let’s explore ideas and ways to help, guide, affect, mold, and influence a child’s identity:

Essential Questions:

  • What is identity:
  • Who creates, molds, crafts a child’s identity?
  • What role(s) do parents/family play in shaping identity?
  • How much do/should other factors influence, affect, and/or shape a child’s identity?

Individual

Cultural

Regional

Social

National/International

Social media

Television/film

Entertainment

Activities

Social platforms/groups

Simply, we have “things” that illustrate and “define” identity from birth: birth certificates, social security numbers, an array of licenses, certificates, identity cards, and degrees. However, identity is so very much more than that. The “things that define us” above are objective, impersonal—perfect for maintaining records, stats, and even accomplishments.

Identity, however, is far more than cards, paper, or certificates.

Temperament, perspective, voice, uniqueness of the individual, natural predilections, acquired/discovered characteristics combine in the construction of identity. Complementing and further shoring up and molding a child’s personal identity includes family, culture, exposure, and community. Additional components also influence and mold a child’s identity: symbols and concepts of country, for example, like patriotism, state and national flags, historical places and events. All of these parts contribute to the whole of a child’s emerging and maturing identity.

Social media, the ever-growing variety of entertainment, streaming platforms, digital and print platforms that provide 24/7 messaging and imaging—all target toward attracting and influencing kids. This new and often unanticipated Identity-influencer can both complement and complicate parents’ focus and attention to molding and helping build kids’ individual identities.

To help build kids’ identities, let’s reflect on how we think about the word and important meaning of identity as it specifically relates to us: Who am I? This question is a challenging one even for adults, often because we don’t think of the term in the larger sense of who each of us is to ourselves, to family, friends, colleagues, even strangers.

This introspection-exploration could be a fun opportunity for first-time parents, especially, because there is time for conversation and exploration not only within but also with extended-family, community, friends, culture, for example. Remembering back to how as a small child, you have become who you are—your identity.

Interestingly, parents’ role of shaping and helping to mold a child’s identity can begin quietly and early with monumental and lifelong impact: holding and talking to your infant; reading aloud to and later with your child, doing tasks together with tools for the child and parent, listening and processing what you are hearing from your kids without interruption, for example. Seemingly simple engagements, yes, but oh so critical and potentially life-changing. Looking internally and exploring oneself as well as past parental interaction and influence can often help new parents think back about how they want to approach their influence and impact on kids’ identity and voice.

As cited earlier, one unforeseen impact and influencer aimed at kids is social media and its myriad of iterations. Kids today are connected 24/7, literally experiencing different people, places, voices, and perspectives around the world. Too often when asked whom they admire, for example, the response is a person or pursuit completely outside of family. Aspirations and dreams increasingly reflect the celebrity kids see and experience on various media platforms.

Let’s be clear: is social media a bad iteration for Generation Z? Of course not. Social media and its users can inform, as well as provide the means for conversation, exploration and inquiry. Parents can be active participants with kids in this ever-growing format. They can leverage this generation’s technical deftness and active presence. Allowing kids to know you want to share, discover, and learn through social media with them may not only surprise parents and kids but also can foment different forms of interaction between you and your kids.

Kids today are rarely not communicating. On the contrary, they are writing, speaking, visually experiencing others outside of family: texting, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tik-Tok, Snapchat, various texting platforms, sharing images and video on personal and other platforms. Again, this flow of media is not an either/or, but rather, social media is an is. It exists and is never going away. And in many instances, social media is an amazing, positive source for outreach, communication, exploring other cultures, countries, people. At times, social media even provides users with a lens that connects past to the present. How to leverage kids’ interest and deftness along with sharing together can be a bonding, as well as fun and building experience that parents can sustain.

Memories, Conversations, Family Rediscoveries:

What has surprised me as a teacher over the years, as well as collaborating with John E. Grassie whose producer experience provides further in-depth understanding of television audiences and program development focuses on how much various media elements provide kids with so many voices, choices, and perspectives—as discussed earlier. A good thing? Absolutely!

What must accompany these amazing resources are parents’ interacting with their kids: listening, watching, interacting together, and then talking about what they see, hear, experience, read, and write. These moments can often be times when as parents, you can, as author Toni Morrison coined, Rememory back to your family, culture, geographical region. Pull out the pictures, the old letters, and your memories about who you and your child are because of their history—their family history—and your history, too. Kids’ having a celebrity as an idol or aspiration is not a bad selection; however, many kids today have little knowledge of their family histories and, this country’s— their country’s—history—the good the bad, and, yes, the ugly. Our kids really do need all of these critical components as building blocks for identity development.

John’s parents.

Jocelyn’s parents

For me, I can still not only remember but also remember with love and now with even more appreciation that my parents constantly reinforced my identity at home, at church, school, and community. At the same time, they encouraged my experience in other cultures, art, film, activities, etc. Together, they consciously shaped, while also helping me develop my own unique identity—a “Jocelyn Ann-identity” that could not have been without their modeling, molding and encouraging me on my own. Knowledge of my family’s past history, too, with grands and great-grands, continue to influence my identity: the people, their life experiences, geographical region, challenges, hardships, and successes. Every parent has this unique ability to help children at home and in the community develop something on which they will rely forever—their Identity.

Today, parents find themselves in an entirely different family dynamic than even their own past experiences. Your grandparents could not have even begun to imagine what their grandkids take as “normal” today. What this development means for you and your kids with regard to guiding and helping them build, understand, and hone their own unique identity is not to limit the changed and ever-changing outside influences and voices. Rather, illustrate and model with your kids the how of thinking and talking through the dissemination of information in light of who they are becoming—thinking and totally unique individuals. Through your guidance and modeling, your kids see and experience first-hand how to listen, read, watch, filter in and out.

Just to reiterate, one central family-bonding activity as a stepping-stone to Identity will be providing your kids with that important family history—memories, faces, moments, regions, voices, successes, and failures. Your being there for them—listening, guiding, and advising—will forge ever-stronger bonds.

“The best thing she was, was her children.” (Sethe from Beloved, 321.)

“These hands belong to me. These my hands.” (Baby Suggs as a freed-woman to Stamp-Paid from Beloved, 236.)

Also, remember to be ready to enter their social media world, inquiring of and listening to your kids about what they find compelling and persuasive. Then, calmly and with surety and faith in your parent-child relationship, move through together toward guiding and helping your child develop a uniquely individual identity that reflects family and your child’s own voice and perspective.

The power of family is not only defined by life memories, but also their enduring presence and continuing presence in our lives. More than community, culture, school, and other people, parents—YOU—are the model-makers/influencers for kids. They may not verbally express how they feel about how they look to you for guidance, but they do.

Grandmother Chadwick, holding me outside our family church.

Fun Identity Activities for Parents with Kids: What follows are some fun family activities you may want to try with your kids. Be sure to listen and process with your kids—everyone will learn far more about each other.

Name That Person: I really like [name of person] because . . .

What is identity?

How is it defined?

Can you shape your own identity?

Whom do you admire and why?

In this activity, each person will write the names of three people you really like.

  • With each name list three important characteristics that make the person special.
  • Explore each of your responses and be sure to add those pics and other memories of family where appropriate. Family history often helps kids to understand how who they and you are emanates from a distinct past—their and your past. This activity could also become your Family Scrapbook! An important identity-record you and kids can keep, pass down, and add to for generations.
  • Some further questions to drop into this activity:
  • Because kids often focus on heroes in terms of their standing, popularity, and accomplishments explore with them the difference between what they see on television or at a game or film or music video versus the actual person in everyday life.

What is the difference between what you “do,” and what you “believe and practice?”

Explore with kids the terms and the meaning of believe and practice

This activity would be a great time to explore the term image vs individual person—not a character or athlete or celebrity—the real person. Explore together if image is all that makes a person worth admiring and practicing?

Getting to Know You: First Impressions:

You are probably not old enough to have sung or even heard the song, “Getting to Know You (1951). Many Pre-K-Kindergarten kids sang this song. While the song is upbeat, light, and positive, its refrain also contains expressions that today provide moments of reflection regarding just how do we meet and interact with people we don’t know:

Getting to know you

Getting to feel free and easy . . .

Suddenly I’m bright and breezy

Because of all the beautiful and new

Things I’m learning about you

Day by day.

With your kids, explore

  • When we meet someone new, what do we notice?
  • Think about what makes you different from other people you know?
  • Explore with kids differences between the following:

How one looks?

How one acts?

What one is wearing?

How one sounds?

What I “do” and How I “act” with someone new?

vs

What I believe and practice with someone new?

This is an activity parents and kids can revisit and sustain the ongoing conversations with one question:

What do I know now about myself and others that I did not know before and what have I learned?

“Life is not meant to be easy my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.” (Bask to Methuselah [rev. ed] 1930)—George Bernard Shaw

“With words as our weapons, there are some few of us who will stand on the ramparts to fend off evildoers, the slanderers, the greedy, . . . You are not alone . . . .Your fight has been fought before. I am an American and my country too was once a colony of Englands . . . It was old Walt Whitman who felt what you and your brother fighters are now feeling when he said

Suddenly, out of its stale and drowsy lair, the lair of slaves,

Like lightening it le’pt forth, half startled at itself,

(Richard Wright’s travelogue, Black Power, 351.)

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