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on being different…

Teaching Kids About Being Different

Teaching Kids About Being Different

A few months ago, Ruby went through a phase where she kept saying, "I just want to be normal." She didn't like it when we said she was funny or cute or entertaining. She would get upset, stop whatever she was doing, shrug her shoulders and proceed to tell us she just wanted to be normal. Of course, that upset me a lot because she doesn't yet realize that not "being normal" is what most people strive to be. The most successful and creative people in the world are those who think outside the box and who defy what's considered "normal".

While my husband and I knew it was a phase and tried not to worry about it too much, I knew that it was my job as her parent to keep telling her in small ways how we are all different and special and how really there is no "normal". Most of Ruby's friends come from mixed families and so we talk to her all the time about how every family is different and special.

To make it easier for her to visualize, we've been using these animals (leftover from Coco's birthday party). I asked her what they look like and what makes them each special. We talked about the different colors they had and also what sounds they make, how strong they are, and things they can do that no other animal can do. Then, when I asked her which one was the "normal" one. She said that none of them were normal and they were all special. Finally, we talked about what made her different and special. Now she's much more okay with not being normal and is more aware of trying to think about what makes her…well, her. 

(Now, let's queue the music that comes on at the end of every episode of Full House right about now…)

I know we'll struggle with this issue throughout her life as she grows and changes and strives to fit in and be accepted by her peers (I spent a good chunk of my tween years wishing I looked like the other girls in my class). But for now, I feel a small bit of relief that we're helping her become more aware of everyone's differences and enjoying the beauty of that.

I'd love to hear what you guys think and any things that have helped you with this type of thing in the past.

{Photo by Casey Brodley for Oh Joy}


  1. What a great post. Joy i think you set a great example for Ruby. Love the animal example you used with her to explain how each everyone is unique in their own way. Great lesson!

  2. I think this is a lovely example of a way to have this type of conversation with a toddler. We have similar variations, since we’re “American” but of different backgrounds and living in a third country altogether so there’s always something about us that people point out as different. At the same time, our toddler is at the age when she notices differences in others too, so it’s been interesting to have the flip side of the conversation as well. We travel a lot so one of the things we do when we’re on trips (and we just got back from Morocco and did this at each dinnertime) is to talk about things that we noticed that are different, because it gives her a safe place to work through things she’s seeing, but then we ask her to think about what is the same, to help her place what we all have in common so that differences don’t become definitions.

  3. What a cute life lesson for Ruby and your family. It’s funny how kids have a completely different mindset than we do as adults. Their perspective on who they are and what they want to be is so innocent and yet, as they grow up they become more and more tainted by society. I love how you used something Ruby can relate to in order to teach her an important aspect of life. I am sure that is something that will impact her in a positive way.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Love this post so much. I just had organized a Party Yesterday and tried something new and unusual. I was really anxious of how it would be. But unfortunately it was not as I was expecting it to be. So the lesson here is normal is easy and completely fine. But if you want to stand out you have to be unique and just be you. Because everyone is special 🙂 Love this article Joy<3

  5. You did a great job talking about it with Ruby. I wonder where she picked up the phrase and idea about being normal from. It’s interesting to see how little humans think. Something else to add to the conversation is how to accept compliments because I know I struggle with that as an adult!

  6. This is so important for kids to understand.
    Sometimes they don’t necessarily look different but they feel different to the rest and this is when mom or dad should come to the rescue like you did. Explaining that we are all different. Physically, spiritually and personality wise.
    So key to be there for them when they are going through this.
    Been there, done that! ha! Lovely post!

  7. This post gave my heart a flutter. I am stealing this idea for the inevitable day that my daughter starts looking at her peers and seeing all the ways she is different and it leads to self-consciousness. Can’t wait to teach her to celebrate the not-normal – in herself and in others!

  8. Great post and wonderful lesson. I grew up with a mother who would often proclaim that she loved how weird my sister and I were. I think, much like Ruby, I only saw the negative in it. After hearing it for decades, now it’s finally drilled into me that weird is good. I might have quirks, but nowadays when people tell me I’m weird, I’m reminded of those moments that were filled with so much love- it rolls off my back and also helps me understand other people more.
    An important life moment for sure.

  9. This warms my heart for a variety reasons. If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure even as grown-ups we struggle with the same concept from time to time. Thx for sharing!

  10. Great post, but I don’t get what is “not normal” about her… :/
    (Btw I always find that the things that make us “not normal” are the things that make us “normal” eventually.)

  11. Beautiful post, and I think the topic is something we all struggle with sometimes, even as adults. If we can accept ourselves, we can start to accept and appreciate everyone else and their own special differences. My five year old son on the other hand, has a hard time believing he’s not the only special one out there 😉

  12. This is setting the stage for sooooo many future situations that you’ve made easier…race discussions…being a woman. Our identity…our differences…recognizing what makes us special and how it’s good seriously…you’ve laid the foundations for some great perspective later on.
    My favorite new question for all mother challenges I’ve run into: Isn’t there a book for this? lol
    I know there’s a college text called “The Uniqueness Theory” that goes into all of this but I’m sure Ruby would chuck that atcha lol.
    You’re doing great mama.

  13. Beautiful and heartwarming post, Joy! As Ansook and Elise have already said, we may also as adults struggle with the same issues of fitting in (and I think, even in our own communities, artistic and otherwise). I ADORE the example with the animals; a great teaching/learning moment for the both of you. 🙂 Hopefully this is one of those core memories that stays with your little one as she grows older.

  14. Very often, “normal” can also mean “white” for all of us adults and children of color. I’m so glad you showed her that being different means being special! Ruby is a beautiful child, and I hope she never has to deal with the toxic racism in this country. Way to be an awesome mom!!

  15. Hello Joy, beautiful post. I think perhaps she just doesn’t like to be put on the spot (her personality, as sweet as it is being pointed out/commented on)? Her idea of normal may be not in the center of attention. Nothing wrong with that, many creative, great minds did not enjoy the spotlight. You might have a little wiseman (girl) on your hands 🙂

  16. Maybe she was thinking about how she always is being photographed and called on to perform and be so much. Maybe she’s tired and wants to live more simply. Maybe she’s becoming thrilled to death and she’s weary. Just wondering.

  17. Sounds like she doesn’t like the attention perhaps she feels she is being laughed at my son often feels the same way like he was being laughed at when we thought he was cute

  18. Hey Silvia!
    She did go through a phase of not liking attention and so I think you are right about that. Sometimes they also mid-understand when people think they are funny to think that people are laughing at them. It’s such a sensitive thing to work through and to try and explain how laughing is a good thing!

  19. Hey Maya,
    That’s a great thing you picked up on. She did go through a phase around this time of not liking the attention and didn’t want to cause a stir in any way (ie. being funny or entertaining etc). I think that in combination of starting to see what the kids at school liked vs. what she liked and seeing their differences brought a lot of this up.

  20. Thanks for your thoughts on this Enorma! I think at this age, kids don’t know what goes on outside of their own lives. They don’t know who is rich or poor or who travels a lot or who stays put or who has divorced parents or single parents, etc. I don’t think she’s analyzing anything that deeply other than to start feeling like she wants to fit in and what that means to her.

  21. Thanks Sheila!
    It took me a really long time to be totally happy with who I am so I am hoping to instill that in her as early as I can 😉

  22. Thanks mama! My new “isn’t there a book for this” is just “ask your friends”! I learn so much from just asking others what they think or what they would do.

  23. Thanks Rebecca! When she gets there, we’ve been listening to these “Princess Bean” music CDs in the car that celebrates this princess that is sort of a tomboy with crazy hair and plays the guitar and she’s nothing like the typical “princess”. That’s been really great for Ruby, too, especially as she (begrudgingly to me) goes through the princess phase as well.

  24. Thanks Anita! I think it’s from school and being around more kids. Just the idea of seeing some things that other kids wear or things they have or like that are different.
    And yes, accepting compliments is a whole other thing too!

  25. Oh Joy. I love this. Just reminds me so much of how out child and everyone e just want to be lived and accepted for who they are. What a good mommy you are to capture this teaching moment rather than leering the phase pass

  26. @Jane I think there is a way to express your question such as “Do you think Ruby wanting “to be normal” may come from a deeper need to be less exposed on social media?” (although I think kids that age are not conscious about this just yet)that is less agressive than the way you put it. I don’t know if you have kids but if you do you should know how harsh it is for parents to be judged all the time. There is a tactful way to express your opinion and this is what you should always choose when adressing someone else because you just don’t know everything about them inluding the reasons behind their choices when raising their children.

  27. You are such a good mom! I hope when I have kids I am able to respond like that, not just tell a child things but show them, and really engage them. Ruby and Coco are adorable. I love it when you post about them.

  28. You are doing a great job Joy!
    My niece said this for years. Anytime anyone told her she was so cute or funny she would said, “I’m not cute! I’m normal!” Her parents are both from the same background, religion, and geographic area. Sometimes for kids, it’s more that they dont want the titles. More of an anything you say I am, I’m going to say im not! Now with my daughter I think about it more and just not pigeon holing or titling my kids as anything and let them decide for themself. What if being titled special can bring on as much pressure as normal and vice versa if its decided for them. Jeez parenting is hard! I think you have done a fantastic job showing ruby that whatever/whomever she is, she is awesome!

  29. Dear Joy,
    This article went beyond anything I’ve read on your blog. I completely enjoy the creative journey you regulary share on this blog, but absolutely love the personal journey you give a peek of.
    I think it’s so empowering as young women and mothers we teach each other so much through our digital worlds. Even my little one ask such complex questions. I’m left wondering, ‘If you’re going to ask me this when you just three, I wonder what you’ll ask me when you’re 8!’ Phew! But children are so amazing. They teach us to be better parents while learning to be kids, don’t you think?
    Today’s blogpost was particularly special.
    Thank you. 🙂

  30. Thanks Liz for your comment. I deleted the ones you responded to as they were hurtful and attacking. I don’t mind if someone questions kids on social media as that’s a normal question to ask (and I address my decisions on that all the time when I give talks or when I have discussions with real people in real life). But if someone can’t leave their real email address for me to discuss it with them and also makes a lot of assumptions about what kind of parent I am and the decisions I make, then I won’t keep hurtful comments like that on my site.
    I really appreciate your support.

  31. Ahh, this post is so sweet and totally hit home. I have been trying to teach my boys the same thing. I tell them how perfect their hair, skin color are, how smart, funny and thoughtful they are. A few weeks ago, my 6 year old said that a kid in his class said his hair feels weird, and my son said he agreed with him. It broke my heart, and we had a talk. I think a lot of times we make mistake as parents by telling our kids that we are all the same in an attempt to teach them equality. I’ve been around parents who were embarrassed when their child noticed differences between their kid and mine. It is a hard job, and because I too struggled with self acceptance for a while I am super aware. I think telling our kids what makes them, so special and them is a wonderful approach.

  32. Hi Joy – animals are such a great reference for this kind of discussion. My daughter asked me about skin differences when she was a preschooler and I chose to talk about dogs and all the different breeds and colours and shapes and markings, etc. We agreed that dogs would be pretty boring if they were all the same, and people would be too!

  33. Hm, I wonder what she thinks being ‘normal’ is? I mean, does she think that you are normal? And Bob? Which of her peers is normal and why? This is such an interesting exploration into her little mind. I think you handled her concerns beautifully Joy. Brava.

  34. Joy, hello. I rarely (never) post a comment, but I am a devoted reader of your blog since forever. I have to say this post is an absolute favorite to me! I love your design and come here mostly for that (an occasional post about your littles never hurt anyone as well), but it’s so inspiring to see how you bring your creative side to other aspects of life as well. Love your ideas and your way of thinking.
    The reason I wrote this comment is I got some nice words regarding a recent work project from my boss. It made me feel great and I said I’m doing the same thing – showing appreciation to someone’s work I love. So that’s that. All the best to you!

  35. Hi Sara,
    Thank you SO much for your nice words – it means more than you know! 😉
    (Filing this in my “nice emails” folder to pull out for when I’m having a bad day)
    Have a great weekend!

  36. I oddly understand Ruby, I always felt this way, to be normal while I was growing up and I feel it now too. The pressure of always being brilliant is quite daunting and i hope you tell her that being fun and intelligent is normal too 🙂

  37. HI
    And thank you so much for the beautiful Christmas printables! I also have a book your daughter might like! It’s called ” You’re either one or the other” I am selling it on one of those selling sites, but for you I will knock down the price. It will help your daughter understand ” differences” and that it’s ok !


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