I go swimming most Friday evenings with my six-year-old friend, Akira. We started about a year and a half ago, calling it “swimming lessons.” Now we just call it “swimming.” It has been a joy to watch him learn to swim, just the way I think people should learn to swim: Having fun in the water, discovering new skills and games at whatever pace feels right. It took him almost exactly a year before he actually swam. He had slowly gotten comfortable putting his face in the water of the hot tub, and then found that when he did, he could lift his feet off of the bottom and float, which he started doing for 15-20 seconds at a time. Then one night he just started swimming, face down, slowly and relaxed, all the way across the hot tub. When he came up for a breath he was so excited. “Nathen! I don’t even have to swim! The water holds me up and all I have to do is pretend to swim!”

He is swimming three times a week now, and looks like a real natural–complete comfort in the water. You would never guess how nervous and circumspect he had been about water. He wouldn’t even blow bubbles for eight months–the bubbles popped uncomfortably close to his nose and eyes.

I am also getting to watch him grow up, which is mostly delightful. He is getting confident and funny–not surprising, since his parents are two of the funniest people I know.

Tonight, we were in the hot tub with another kid Akira’s age, and that kid started trying to make friends. “What’s your name?” “Can you do this?” Stuff like that. He seemed like a nice, friendly kid, and Akira was playing along. At a certain point the kid made an awkward move, standing too close and smiling too much. I realized later that he was going to try to lift Akira up out of the water a little, like he had seen me do. It created this awkward moment, though, and Akira said, “Weird.” The kid’s smile turned a little anxious, but he didn’t move away. Akira said “You’re weird. Get away from me.” The kid followed through with the lifting-up move, but instead of the original, playful feel, it ended up feeling aggressive, like, “This is what you get for calling me weird.”

I had an impulse to intervene, to stop the misunderstanding somehow. I had thought of this kid as a potential friend for Akira. I just didn’t think of anything to say besides, “Stop!” or “Don’t be mean.” Neither of those seemed right. The kid’s dad was there too, watching, and he didn’t say anything either. Akira started staying close to me, making a game of walking over my lap. I realized that he was nervous, that when he had said, “You’re weird,” he had been uncomfortable, a little scared.

Then it hit me what a powerful tool “You’re weird” is to a kid. Weird is the worst thing you can be at that age, the doorway to isolation and bullying. Being able to say “You’re weird” with enough poise shows where you stand in the hierarchy and rallies the troops of conformity to your aid. It is also a way to avoid vulnerability: A year ago, Akira would have just retreated, outwardly scared and confused. He would have whispered in my ear, “Can we go to the cold pool now?” Saying “you’re weird” was standing up for himself, a six-year old’s way of saying, “The way you are standing close to me is making me uncomfortable. Please stop doing that.”

So partly I was proud of him, and partly I was sad about the struggle he is entering into. It takes constant vigilance. Don’t be the weird one, the one who cries, the one who stands too close, the outcast, the one you can safely tease. Then, a few years later, don’t be the uncool one, the awkward one, the kid who gets beat up with impunity. Then, a few years later, don’t be the unhip one, who doesn’t quite know the right music in time, who has to pay close attention to stay on the tail-end of trends, the wannabe. For God’s sake, don’t let yourself be vulnerable! Every action must shout invulnerable and in control. And inside it’s, “Please believe me. He is the weird one. Not me. Him.”

I think conformity is a stage, unavoidable unless you are truly incapable of achieving it. I think it has to be negotiated by the kids, between the kids, for the most part. When Akira told me, “That kid is weird,” I said, “Well, I think he just wants to be friends,” but I couldn’t tell if it sunk in. And I don’t know how useful it would be if it did. Maybe the sooner he masters conformity, the sooner he can reject it and start exploring the joys and pain of vulnerability again.

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