As an awkward child, I found the forced cheerfulness and pressure to adopt color-coded attire during “spirit days” in school humiliating. With barely working-class parents in an absurdly wealthy California community, it was always the same group of kids who showed spirit: the well off, popular ones who let me know, with public insults and heavy glares, how disgusted they were with me for not towing the line. They didn’t know that my parents didn’t share an enthusiasm for school activities at best, and at worst, couldn’t afford to buy the T-shirt.
It turns out that my 6-year-old son—far less awkward and much more social than I ever was—has inherited my suspicion of group activities and forced conformity, despite that I’ve never shared my opinions with him.
When I asked him recently if he wanted color in his hair for “crazy hair day,” he scrunched up his face in horror. "Definitely not!"
This is his response to any themed spirit day including “tacky day,” “pajama day” and even “mismatched socks” day. He doesn’t like to stand out or perform, and I don’t feel it’s my job to push him.
The problem is, once we get to school on these days of “spirit,” for instance the week of “crazy hair day” surrounded by his classmates bedecked with blue streaks, red mohawks and complex ribbons, he still experiences age-appropriate fear of being different. "I'm the only one whose hair is not crazy." He hid beneath the hood of his jacket. “They’re going to laugh at me.”
“It’s okay to be yourself,” I soothed. “In fact, that’s probably the best thing you can be.” Did my advice sound when even the teachers were sporting funky side ponytails and bows?
I don’t believe a parent should force a child toward everything he is afraid of. Despite “exposure therapy” theories, wherein children learn “backbone” by facing their fears, this is one arena that doesn’t quite seem worth the effort.
In fact, I struggle to see the point of these days at all unless they’re tied to a specific event—a fundraiser, like the lap-running Panther Prowl, or an educational opportunity, like Unity Day, which promotes anti-bullying. Do we need more moments of pressure to conform to arbitrary conditions that make many children feel forced? What exactly do I teach my child when I insist he do something to “be like everyone else”?
And let's dissect this term "school spirit"—it smacks of propaganda to make sure the children stay in line and are less likely to show dissent. Does a student who does not participate then run the risk of being accused of having no spirit, like a grade school version of McCarthyism?
I can imagine other parents telling me to chill out. If I had the sort of child who let things roll easily off his back, perhaps I would. But if my child finds it uncomfortable, what about children who already feel different for myriad other reasons ranging from physical disabilities to wearing braces? What I recall from the trenches of my painful school years is that when you’re already singled out for any reason, attempts to “join in” only makes other kids more hostile.
While I know one parent’s dissent won’t change the way these kinds of events are handled, it’s my hope to reassure other parents with children like mine that allowing them not to participate is, in and of itself, a form of teaching independence and courage to be who they truly are. It’s no less spirited to choose to come to school simply as yourself.