When You Don't Want Your Child to Be 'Well-Adjusted'

When You Don't Want Your Child to Be 'Well-Adjusted'

Kids who are involved in civic engagement

There’s no question that seeing your child safe, happy, and healthy, and generally well-adjusted, is a priority for any parent. That said, there’s a lot out there in the world that you would never want your kids to “adjust” to, even if it means swimming against a prevailing tide.

As we gear up to celebrate the life and legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s a good time to remember our responsibility to come together and work for what’s right—rather than simply adjust to or accept destructive forces as normal or acceptable.  

As Dr. King said in 1957:

…there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I suggest that you too ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob-rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions which take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence. I call upon you to be maladjusted. The salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.

This call to action challenged people to raise their voices and take a stand for equality. Today, it’s just as necessary to follow this call to be “maladjusted.” Taking action to stand up against harmful and discriminatory beliefs and practices is important not just on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, marked by many as a day of service, but all year long.

Challenging the status quo and making positive change isn’t always easy. Dr. King’s peaceful protests were often interrupted by the police, and he was jailed several times for acting on his beliefs—but his courage helped us move closer to his dream of a better America. And it’s through brave actions like standing up to bullies, calling out bigotry to promote equality, and gathering with others in support of important issues that we can best teach our children about this great leader’s legacy and the power of civic engagement.

So how can you help your child be “maladjusted” in the spirit of Dr. King? Follow these tips from Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald.

1.  Start with a discussion
If your child feels passionately about a certain issue—perhaps the environment, gender equality, or even something more local like improving her school’s playground—ask her why she feels that way and what she would do if she was in charge. Similarly, if she points out that something seems unfair, discuss the issue with her in an age-appropriate way. In 1947, when he was at Morehouse College, Dr. King wrote, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”  Showing kids their opinions and beliefs matter and that you really are listening to what’s important to them will help them build character and give them the courage to speak up and express their views in the future.

2.  Talk about the “why”—even when it’s uncomfortable
Regardless of the cause she cares about most, she might wonder why the things she sees as “unfair” were allowed to happen in the first place. Talk with her about the range of different beliefs and ideologies that have existed over time and the importance of both listening to and trying to consider things from another’s perspective (even when those perspectives can be hard to hear). Explain that not everybody is right all the time, and that even people in powerful positions make mistakes and use bad judgment from time to time. Inspire her to know change is possible by talking about how Dr. King stood up to discriminatory laws that were based in ignorance, like segregation in schools, and how he and others were able to defeat them.

3.  Help her see her power
Dr. King wanted us to know that as citizens, it’s our job to let those in charge know what we believe in so they can take action. Depending on her age, you can help your daughter write a letter, call government officials, or even take part in a march or peaceful protest—making sure to explain in simple terms the impact any of those actions might have. Emphasize that it’s normal for her to feel angry and disappointed when she thinks something’s not right, and that those feelings—when expressed in a non-violent way—can motivate others to take action, too, and actually help change the world. Bonus? Rather than feeling powerless or helpless in the face of something she sees as bad, your girl will realize she has the power to be part of the solution. It feels good to take action!

4.  Be there for her
Whether your child asks to attend a rally, protest, or march, or is addressing an emotionally charged topic through social media, talk with her ahead of time to explain what potential responses could be. If she’s going to an event, discuss what she might see, what kinds of people might be there, and what different groups might be thinking and feeling. Carrying a sign (especially one she made herself), chanting along with the group, or seeing affirming responses to her views online can help your girl find a sense of community—she’s not alone in her beliefs!—and reinforce that she has the power to make a difference. That said, being in the middle of a large, very vocal crowd can be frightening, as can receiving negative comments or hateful reactions online. Dr. King faced many detractors with unflinching dignity, but some forms of opposition may be too much for a child or adolescent just finding her voice. So check in with her and keep an eye out for any signs of anxiety or fear. And of course, if you’ are concerned that your child might find herself in harm’s way, take her out of the situation immediately.

Helping your child become civically engaged and stand up for what she believes in might not always be easy, but it will certainly be worthwhile. As Dr. King said in an address at the University of Chicago, “The institution of the family is decisive in determining not only if a person has the capacity to love another individual, but in the larger social sense whether he is capable of loving his fellow men collectively.” And indeed, raising up a generation of thoughtful, passionate, engaged—and yes, when called for, maladjusted children—is perhaps the most meaningful tribute any of us could give to Dr. King and all he did for society.