Dinosaurs and Fighter Pilots: A Lesson in Cherishing Individuality

Helping our kids love the characteristics that make them unique.

By Molly McNamara Carter

When my middle child was about two, he dressed up for Halloween in a dinosaur costume a friend had passed on to us. He loved stomping around the house growling at everyone and hitting his big floppy head onto anyone who wasn’t giving him the attention he wanted. When the big day finally came, Halloween was a success! But, when the decorations came down and the candy was all eaten (or secretly thrown away), he didn’t want to pack the costume up with the decorations. Instead, this became the first of many costumes he was obsessed with.
Over the next two years, we went through a lineup of costumes (or ‘outfits’ as he called them) he wore each day in place of his regular clothes. After the dinosaur costume, came the fireman outfit, then a builder outfit, and finally—and perhaps my favorite—was his fighter pilot uniform. He tried on the persona that went along with these costumes: growling, talking in a “man voice,” even trying to unscrew the siding on the house during his builder-man phase. Each of these phases was an opportunity to try out something new. He was never concerned that no one else at the grocery store was wearing a fireman’s hat or that no one else was wearing work boots at the beach. Instead, he embraced his individuality and loved every second. 
I remember one Storytime at the library when he was wearing his dinosaur costume. His older brother was mortified. This created a great opportunity to talk about how beautiful it is that everyone is different and how boring the world would be if we all were the same. Sometimes, it’s hard for children to recognize that being the same doesn’t always make us happy. They may feel that for them to be happy they, too, need the toys, clothes, game tech, etc. that everyone else has. In fact, sometimes it’s hard for us as adults, too! Especially with the intense marketing that bombards us.
When I was growing up, I desperately wanted to feel like I was the same as the other kids around me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I really came to realize just how boring the world would be if we all were the same.
I’m a big puzzle person. One of my very favorite things to do for ‘me time’ is to zone out with an audiobook and a puzzle. I can get so lost. In fact, sometimes I have to remind myself that this is “just a puzzle,” because mid-puzzle it can become imperative that the puzzle gets finished, despite the hour of the night (or morning) or what things have been neglected (like dinner). There are so many lessons that can relate to puzzles…I guess that’s where my brain goes when the audiobook is over and I’m still placing pieces.

One analogy that fits with this topic is as follows: each puzzle piece is different—different shapes, different colors, and different sizes. We all fit in. And we are all different. But in the end, we need every single piece to complete the puzzle because each is a different part of the big picture and contributes to the beauty of the world. 

I love to think about these puzzle pieces any time one of my kids feels like they need or want to do something because other people are doing it. I love to point out the variety all around us. A great example of this is nature. We are constantly surrounded by such incredible individuality. Even among the same species of plants or animals, there is incredible uniqueness. This is the message in my new book, The Little Green Pumpkin released in September. 
A couple of years ago, my daughter and I rode on a hayride at a pumpkin patch. My older boys wanted to go on rides that she was too little for, so she and I climbed aboard the hay wagon that a tractor pulled around a giant cornfield and then the pumpkin patch. We noticed all the big round orange pumpkins, until there, by the edge of the field, I spotted a green pumpkin. I pointed it out to my daughter, and she immediately told me she wanted the green one. I couldn’t get it out of my head; the idea that this little pumpkin was surrounded by other pumpkins that were so different from it was so intriguing. I went home and searched the Internet to find different varieties of pumpkins and was shocked by what I found.  According to the websites I found, there are over 100 varieties of pumpkins. They range from a few ounces to (get this) 2,300 pounds! Can you imagine carving that jack-o-lantern? Some are good for carving, others for eating, and others are best for fall decorations. As in my book, pumpkins really are so diverse and unique: bumpy, squat, long, orange, white, pink, yellow, gray, and more. The main character in my book was based after a Kabocha Pumpkin that stays green and only grows to be 3-4 pounds at the most. I loved the idea of highlighting something that people easily assume is one way, like an orange pumpkin, and expanding their awareness to include the incredible variety and uniqueness that exists in one seemingly simple species. 
One of the things I’ve learned in research, as a teacher and as a mother, is that a child’s framework of the world begins with their parent/caregiver. A child’s ideology—how they see themselves, what they believe, and how they see the world—usually begins by reflecting the parents. Of course, as the child grows and gains their own experience in the world, they begin to see things differently or have those earlier beliefs verified. When, as parents, caregivers, teachers, grandparents, or anyone who interacts with children, we build a child up and love the unique things about them, we are teaching them to also love those things. This also comes in the form of reflection or example.
I remember watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show where a mother realized that even though she had always told her daughter she was beautiful, she also criticized her own body in front of her daughter. The daughter ended up having severe body dysmorphia and dealt with years of an eating disorder that required medical intervention. As adults in children’s lives, we need to be aware that children watch us and interpret what they see and hear based on their very limited experience of life. As adults, even if it’s for the sake of our children, we can embrace what is unique and individual about ourselves and, in turn, teach our children to do the same. 
Because books are a huge part of my life, I’ve often turned to them for answers. I love the simplicity of picture books that can teach a message to any age. I love reading picture books to my kids, even though they are well beyond the 4–8-year-old age of the target audience.
Some of my favorite books teach children to value their uniqueness and self-worth. One is Madeline the Mermaid by Julie Awerkamp, Holly Anderson, and Jesi Yap. My daughter loved following Madeline’s journey as she discovered the beautiful diversity around her and grew in appreciation of herself. I remember reading Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes to my kiddos when they were little. I love how Chrysanthemum has such a strong support group at home. Her family builds her up and loves her, and it’s that love that she depends on for strength when she realizes that the unique things about her might not be easily accepted by others. Another is Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey. The best part is that in the end, Thelma realizes she really just wants to be herself and comes to value the person (or horse) who loved her when she was just being herself.
I learned such an important lesson watching my little fighter pilot own his outfit, own his “man voice,” and own his imagination. I’ve gotten to watch him grow into a confident teenager who lives his life by being true to who he is and loving it. Everyone isn’t into what he’s into. Who cares! It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

So, what if, instead of encouraging our children to choose what everyone else their age, in their class, or in their friend group chooses, we support them in loving what is unique about them and help them embrace the beauty of individuality? If we love all the unique things about them and vocalize that to them, show them, they will learn to love those things too. 

Molly McNamara Carter is the author and illustrator of The Little Green Pumpkin and the author of four other picture books for children.

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