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In Praise of Black Sheep

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There's a black sheep in every flock, and there are few of us who don't know one, or didn't know one as a child. Every family, every class, has one: that brother or sister, boy or girl, who's always in trouble, who's prone to stretch limits or take things "too far," who's embarrassingly honest, who never fits in. It's that child over whom every teacher puzzles longest and every parent loses the most sleep.

But no matter how natural the phenomenon, being a misfit is never easy. Because children are so vulnerable, and because they are dependent on the adults around them, they are far more sensitive to criticism than one might guess, and far more easily crushed. And even if their natural forgetfulness and their amazing capacity to forgive relieves most children of much that might burden an adult, there are those whose self-confidence can be shriveled by an unjust accusation, a cutting remark, or a hasty miscalculation.

Whenever we pass judgment on a child, we fail to see him as a whole person. True, he may be nervous, shy, stubborn, moody, or violent; we may know his siblings or his background, or think we recognize family traits. But to focus on any one aspect of a child, especially a negative one, is to put him in a box whose sides may not really be determined by reality, but only by our own expectations.

Obviously, every child is different. Some seem to get all the lucky breaks, while others have a rough time simply coping with life. One child consistently brings home perfect scores, while the next is always at the bottom of the class. Another is gifted and popular, while still another, no matter how hard he tries, is always in trouble and often gets forgotten. As parents, we must refrain from showing favoritism, and from comparing our children with others. Above all, we must refrain from pushing them to become something that their unique personal makeup may never allow them to be.

Neither should we forget that raising a "good" child is a dubious goal in the first place, if only because the line between instilling integrity and breeding self-righteousness is so fine. Getting into trouble can be a vital part of building a child's character. As the Polish pediatrician Janusz Korczak points out: "The good child cries very little, he sleeps through the night, he is confident and good-natured. He is well-behaved, convenient, obedient, and good. Yet no consideration is given to the fact that he may grow up to be indolent and stagnant."

It is often hard for parents to see the benefits of having raised a difficult child - even when the outcome is positive. But strange as it may sound, I believe that the more challenging the child, the more grateful the parent should be. If anything, parents of difficult children ought to be envied, because it is they, more than any others, who are forced to learn the most wonderful secret of true parenthood: the meaning of unconditional love. It is a secret that remains hidden from those whose love is never tested.

At a conference in the sixties, at a time when "mal-adjustment" was the educational catchphrase of the day, Martin Luther King shocked teachers and parents by turning the supposed problem on its head. "Thank God for maladjusted children," a colleague remembers him saying.

When we welcome the prospect of raising the problematic child with these things in mind, we will begin to see our frustrations as moments that can awaken our best qualities. And instead of envying the ease with which our neighbors seem to raise perfect offspring, we will remember that rule-breakers and children who show their horns often make more self-reliant and independent adults than those whose limits are never tried. By helping us to discover the limitations of "goodness" and the boredom of conformity, they can teach us the necessity of genuineness, the wisdom of humility, and finally the reality that nothing good is won without struggle.

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