The Identity Issue: I Gotta Be Me
Part of growing up is learning who you are, and sometimes that’s not easy. Kids often face pressure to conform, and it can be really hard to stay true to their own identity. There’s social pressure, media pressure, peer pressure and maybe parent pressure, too. Kids must learn where they fit in and where they stand out. Especially when one or more aspects of their identity aren’t the norm (whatever that is), this can mean tough social and emotional work.
Identity can include many things, including gender, sexual, religious, racial, ethnic, national, generational and political identity, and one or more aspects of a person’s identity may change over time, according to ACT for Youth Center of Excellence, a New York-based center focused on positive youth development and adolescent sexual health.
The road to self-knowledge can be difficult, but identity development for kids and adolescents is essential to building a fundamental confidence and inner peace.
Toca Magazine interviewed six kids who are passionate about an aspect of their identity to find out why they want to tell the world, “This is who I am.”
Name it and claim it.
Laye lives in rural California, where she’s a self-directed, adult-assisted unschooler and raises goats, chickens and sheep with her parents. Laye is a “Luna’s Team” member for New Moon Girls magazine, which means she selects editorial content and art for the magazine and its online community. Laye tells Toca Magazine why it’s been important to her sense of identity to choose her own name.
What’s the story behind your name change?
“I never really liked my given name (Lily). Around age 5, I asked to be called Snowball, but my parents didn’t agree to that.” (Laye said she’s thankful to her parents for that decision now.)
“My parents still call me Lily, but most of my friends and the other people who know me call me Laye, which was a name I made up, so it was totally me.” Laye said she would like to legally change her name to Laye someday and add Lily to her middle name. “It has special meaning to my parents,” she acknowledged. Then her name would be meaningful to her and her parents. “Kind of like a compromise,” she said.
Do you have any role models?
“Both of my parents are strong, amazing people who have overcome a lot in life.” Laye’s other role models are fictional characters, including Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series and Lyra Silvertongue, the heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. “She doesn’t allow other people to put her down,” Laye said of Lyra Silvertongue. “She just keeps doing what she thinks is right for her to do.”
Have your parents given you any advice on identity?
“They think it’s important for me to be myself … even if it means not being exactly like them,” she said.
Do you have any advice for kids about being true to their own identity?
“Follow your own interests and let your imagination lead you,” Laye said. Since she’s very opinionated, Laye often finds herself in debates, which she loves. Laye said she’s learned the art of being sensitive to others’ views while staying true to her own opinions. “It’s OK to be different from other people as long as you accept them, as long as you’re diplomatic. You can still be happy and get along with people.”
I am an artist.
Dylan is a kid with lots of interests, but drawing is something he strongly identifies as an essential part of who he is. He’s loved creating art for as long as he can remember. As he gets older, he’s focusing more on drawing and sketching. Now he spends lots of time and effort honing his skills. “Recently, I’ve gotten really good at drawing realistic hands and faces,” he said.
How does drawing contribute to your identity?
“When I draw, I don’t think about my own being. I just put my pencil down on the paper and it just starts moving.” But sometimes, “about 25 percent of the time,” his drawings are planned, he said. Those come from real experiences he’s had, like what he sees in nature, such as a beautiful waterfall, or other artists’ work in cartoons, books and movies.
Anytime he’s sketching, Dylan said, “I think I’m an artist then.”
What are some other aspects of your identity not related to drawing?
“I really like to swim. I’m on a competitive swim team and a competitive soccer team, and I love reading,” said Dylan. “Reading is sort of like drawing. When I read … I sort of become one with the story.”
Do you have any role models related to your drawing?
Along with an art teacher he’s had since preschool, Dylan lists cartoonists Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening as his role models. Dylan’s mom is also an artist, so they’ve done some projects together, and she gives him advice on technical skills. “A couple of lines can make it look so much better,” he said.
Any advice for other kids who see their creativity as part of their identity?
“When you have unique abilities—such as drawing, like me— don’t constrain yourself. Try new things,” Dylan said. He’s tried his hand at other visual arts, such as sculpture, in art class at school. Sometimes his friends will tell other classmates to check out what Dylan’s creating in class.
“I’m sort of proud of that,” he said. “It feels good.”
I can be whoever I want.
Zadie began acting in third grade. Now she identifies herself as an actress and has already been in the cast of 11 performances. The middle school she attends includes two hours of performing arts classes each day, and she hopes to attend The Julliard School in New York City for college.
How does acting impact your identity?
“Acting shows that I’m very confident when I’m on stage. It makes me a really happy person,” said Zadie. “Without acting, I think I would be more shy, I wouldn’t be as outgoing.”
Who are some of your biggest supporters and role models?
Zadie said her parents are very supportive of her acting. “They love to see me perform,” she said. The director of the youth theater company that she’s been involved with since third grade has also been one of her greatest cheerleaders. “My director, Tyler, has made a really big impact on me. He’s a great actor and he’s really nice. He’s so encouraging,” she said. Audrey Hepburn is her favorite actress.
In addition to acting, what is another aspect of your identity that you’re proud of?
“I’m African-American, German-Jewish, Italian-Sicilian, and Lebanese,” said Zadie. “I really just like learning about my background.” Zadie said her diverse ethnic and cultural heritage helps her in theater. “In acting, I feel like I can be whoever I want,” she said.
The whole world is a classroom.
Bryce has been a homeschooler his entire life. He’s proud of his identity as a homeschooler and wants to change misperceptions about homeschooled kids.
What do you say to people who ask you about being a homeschooler?
”I tell them it’s pretty awesome, and they tell me I’m very lucky,” said Bryce, who would be in seventh grade in a traditional school but doesn’t usually label himself as being in a specific grade. One of the big benefits of homeschooling for Bryce is not being limited to spending the day with only people of the same age: ”People of all ages get to meet, and we get to meet all sorts of people,” he said.
What are some of the best things about being a homeschooler?
”I get to do different things every day,” Bryce said. ”I just love everything about it. It’s great.” Bryce said he learns in many ways, including with his mom, on the computer, and in workbooks. He said his mom “definitely helps me keep my self-esteem high” by supporting him in trying new things. As part of a local homeschool co-op, he takes break-dancing classes and participates in Roots & Shoots, the Jane Goodall Institute’s youth-led program for environmental and animal activism.
What are some other parts of your identity that you love that aren’t related to being a homeschooler?
“I really like my hair,” Bryce said. “It’s big and puffy. It just happens naturally.” He also loves jet skiing in Florida’s coastal waters. “I see tarpons, dolphins, manatees and sharks. I love living in Florida.”
Anything else you want people to know about your identity as a homeschooler?
Bryce tells a story about a time he and a friend were at a playground and another kid started asking them critical questions about homeschooling. “I think he thought we were dumb,” Bryce said. “I want people to know that’s totally not true.”
To label or not to label.
Ruby wanted to be interviewed for this article to support her friends in the LGBT community who feel pressure to label their sexuality, even if they’re still working it out within themselves. “A lot of kids struggle with coming out, and then they think they have to figure this out,” she said. “It’s a struggle for people not in the LGBT community to understand.”
How do you explain your sexual identity when people ask you to explain?
“I use the term ‘queer’ when people ask for labels because it’s the most general possible term. However, bisexual can also be used as an umbrella term, as can gay. I tend to use queer because there’s essentially zero stigma around it, and I have seen other people use this term to identify themselves.”
Do you have any role models for this aspect of your identity?
“I really admire (actor) Ruby Rose. She’s a public figure and she’s comfortable and confident with her sexuality.”
As you’ve grown up, how did your parents help you be comfortable with who you are? Have they given you any advice on this topic? “My parents have been really supportive, but I understand that a lot of people haven’t had constant support. On the advice front, they’re both straight, so it’s harder for them to give advice, but luckily I’ve got lots of that from my friends.”
What’s another aspect of your identity that you’d like people to know about?
“Books. Reading is a large part of my identity.” Ruby said other aspects of her identity are still developing. “When you’re a teen, you’re still figuring out your identity. I’m still figuring out what parts of myself I most want to present to people.”
Any advice on sexual identity for other teens?
“Don’t feel pressure to come out to anyone unless you feel safe with that person.” And if they’re not supportive? “Dump them.”
I am who I say I am.
Justin wanted to participate in this article to speak out against negative stereotyping of young African-American men. Since age 10, he’s been part of the group Young Gifted and Black in Oakland, California, which teaches kids and teens about black history and how to express themselves through performance art. Justin recently traveled to Ghana to learn more about his heritage.
What is the most important thing for people to know about your identity as an African-American teen male?
“I’m not what the media thinks I am.” Justin said he feels that some people automatically make assumptions that he’s uneducated because of media portrayals of young black men, and that they’re too quick to stereotype.
“People say, ‘Do you play basketball, do you listen to rap music?’” Even though he does play basketball, there’s far more to Justin’s identity that he’d like people to know about.
“I’m a musician and a poet. That shows a lot about my identity and my creativity,” he said. Justin said he takes a “social justice mindset” to his creative work, focusing on issues that are happening in his community.
Do you have any role models related to your racial and gender identity?
“Kendrick Lamar and Common.” These rapper/poets “talk about meaningful things, they talk about social justice,” Justin said.
Have your parents given you any advice on this aspect of your identity?
“They’ve always taught me to love myself and love who I am, to be proud of my history and my ancestry.” His parents encouraged him to apply to Oakland School for the Arts for high school, where he will focus on literary arts.