Adults in the Khoisan (Bushman) tribes of southern Africa are only 4’9’’ tall, on average. These wise and ancient people, who have survived in the most adverse conditions and preserved their way of life for millennia, use this traditional greeting when they meet:
“I saw you coming from afar.”
What’s special about this statement is that it tells the person approaching, I noticed you. It tells him more than that, in fact – it tells him that he is noticeable (in spite of his diminutive stature).
This greeting assures the approaching person that his presence is significant.
Other indigenous peoples, both in Africa and in other parts of the world, traditionally use physical markers (branding, tattooing, or other forms of body modification) to distinguish themselves as part of the tribe; this gives members of the group a sense of belonging. In the modern world this feeling of being a part of something bigger than oneself can be fostered through the use of uniforms and other dress codes (amongst other identifiers).
Every society on earth, in fact, depends on its members having a sense of being a part of that society and being capable of serving that society (in some way or other) in order to function at its best.
The psychologist Alfred Adler talked about this sense of belonging and significance as being fundamental to emotional health and development. A cornerstone of Adlerian psychology is the recognition that we, as humans, all share the same basic desire for connectedness and a need to feel that we have something to contribute.
We all want to know that there is a place for us in the world, and that we matter.
When I look back at my life, I have to admit that my lowest points have coincided with these fundamental emotional needs not being met. When I’ve felt on the periphery of a group in which I’d like to be included; when I’ve been deliberately dismissed or excluded; when things others have said or done have made me feel foolish and unequal to those around me – these challenges have threatened my very sense of self and made me, at times, deeply unhappy.
My boys are about to start at a new school.
Their accents will be different from those of their classmates; they will walk into their classrooms as strangers to the other students; they won’t know where the lunchroom is or when recess starts or what the teachers mean when they tell them to ‘rattle their dags’*. They will not belong.
I know this. I have been there – I’ve been ‘the new girl’. I’ve been the one with the funny accent and the different vocabulary and the strange clothes. I’ve been the one who’s lowest in the pecking order and the one who’s the target for the bullies and the one who just didn’t get how to function in the society of my peers. I did not belong.
In my own experience, it’s par for the course to feel a lack of belonging when you’re the new kid. After all, the other kids know nothing about you – and unless you appear supremely attractive and cool and dazzle them with your sophistication, you are likely to be on the periphery of any established cliques for some time. This was true in my case, except that with good humour and a healthy dose of forgiveness those who had begun as my enemies eventually became my friends. I therefore know that this scenario into which my boys are being thrust can end happily – but still, if I thought I could somehow foster in them a sense of belonging to their new school (and within their peer group) right from the outset I would.
The hard part for me as a parent is that I know that sometimes social alienation can threaten one’s very sense of self. It’s possible that my boys might be ostracized, or ignored, or even just not really noticed; and I know that, if they have a particularly rough time fitting in at school, my beloved sons might even begin to question whether or not they are actually significant.
So what can we do for them, as their parents, to mitigate against these challenges?
Well, we’re going out of our way to give them a sense of belonging. We’re making a real effort to encourage them and illustrate for them how significant they are. We’ve been doing that consistently and intentionally over the past three or four months; part of the reason we wanted to travel with them was to foster a sense of belonging (within our family unit) and to encourage them to see how they could contribute in their own unique way. In fact, it’s not just when we’re travelling that this is important – we are always working to create a culture of belonging in our household and impart to our boys a sense of their own significance to us and to the world at large.
Ideally, we want to breathe life into our boys with every word and gesture; we want to communicate to them that they belong to us, that they belong as brothers, that they belong to God who created them to be just who they are. We want to assure them of their significance, to reinforce the fact that they have so much to offer and so much to contribute to the world.
We need to tell our kids, whenever they face discouragement that threatens their sense of belonging and significance,
“I saw you coming from afar.”
Even if this current transition into a new school community goes unexpectedly smoothly, we know that our kids are bound to encounter situations in life that will challenge their sense of belonging and/or significance. This is what we can do to counteract the effect of those difficulties:
- Teach them who they are: God’s beloved creation; our beloved son; a special brother, grandson, cousin, friend. Knowing who we are in relation to others is key to having a strong sense of belonging. (As I always say, life is about relationship).
- Give them a sense of usefulness: include them in tasks; enlist their help; give them reasonable chores to accomplish in order to contribute to the family unit and to others. Talking about responsibility towards others helps demonstrate how significant we can be as we serve and commune with those around us.
- Help them to identify goals and develop a sense of purpose: making plans and working through the necessary steps to the fulfillment of those plans fosters a spirit of intentionality and gives us a concrete demonstration of how we can be effective in life. Understanding that we can make good choices to positively affect the course of our lives helps us to feel empowered to seek involvement and make a difference in the lives of others as well.
*Rattle your dags is a kiwi expression (unsurprisingly related to sheep), meaning ‘get a move on’ (hurry)