How do I talk to my kid about belonging?
This interview has been adapted from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Belonging, Kevin Carroll. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What does it feel like to belong?
So I truly believe that the meaning of belonging is self-confidence—is having self-confidence to be able to be wherever you are. And you're confident in yourself. Therefore, you're always going to be confident in the environment that you're around and therefore you're going to be able to belong. And even if you don't fit in that situation, you're always good with you. And so I've always believed that belonging starts with you. The idea of your self confidence, your self-belief.
There are countless ways you can belong and countless places you can feel belonging. In your family. On the soccer field. Playing video games with friends. Being part of a school community. Countless.
But, of course you know, we can feel belonging in some spaces and unconnected or distanced in other spaces.
Oh, absolutely. You know, my childhood was not a typical childhood. It was, um, full of upheaval and dysfunction and disappointment. My parents were addicts and my grandparents rescued us and raised me and my two brothers. And so the first place I actually felt the sense of belonging was the playground in the neighborhood: Preston Playground.
And I can, anytime I even bring up the name Preston Playground, I feel this warm feeling inside and my brain and my heart smile like simultaneously, because I can see the image of being welcomed, unconditionally, being included, being invited to play games and be a part of this group of boys. And no one asks “Where'd you come from? Where's your mom? Where's your dad? Who are you?”
That thing is like, “Let's go! Let's play!” And so I really paid attention to that. I was only six years old and I really had this clear feeling like this is a unique and special place. I'm going to stay close to this.
And so I made a commitment to sports and play, not for trophies or medals or first place, but for community in a sense of belonging.
Those others who make you feel welcomed and included? When that happens, everything just connects. Sometimes it’s a friend or classmate who draws you into that shared space. Other times it’s a grownup. A teacher. A parent. A friend’s parent. A coach.
Yeah, you're just welcomed. When you get great coaches and great, you know, adults around you. Oh man. And we had just these really generous coaches at that playground and summer programs and it was amazing. And listen, I still remember their names: Russ Herman. I still remember his name!
Mr. Herman. He was amazing. He was the summer program lead at Preston playground. Oh my gosh. We did all kinds of activities. It wasn't just sports all the time. Doing balsa airplanes and, you know, building different things, arts and crafts, but he led all of it.
And sports was just part of it. But it was all about community. It was all about inclusion.
And the thing I loved about my playground is no one was allowed to stand on the sideline. If you were, if the sides were uneven, you actually had to use your imagination and figure out how to invite someone else to play. So we had ghost players, ghosts runners. All kinds of things that we did. We imagined other players to make the sides even, but no one was ever allowed to stand on the sidelines. So it was always about inviting everyone in and being inclusive.
Inclusion. Inclusive. Those words mean to be included, welcomed. And what about their opposites? Exclusion. Exclusive. That means that someone is excluded, or left out.
I can remember, you know, when I grew up in a time, that's not unlike right now where there's a lot of social unrest and a lot of social strife and struggle right now. And I grew up in a time like that as a child. And I can remember not being welcomed. Some places are being questioned about why I was in a neighborhood or why I was at a park or a playground. And I was there for a game. We were there to play.
And to hear people say, “Well, you don't belong here.”
And I'm [asking], “Well, what do you mean I don't belong here?”
And then to have to be set down by my grandfather to explain. That the color of your skin sometimes will want people to exclude you and not welcome you.
And I remember making a promise to myself. I would never be that way with people that I would always look for the good first; if you demonstrate other behavior, then I'll pass my judgment. But I always wanted to believe in the best in people first and lead with that.
But yeah, so when I was a child, there were instances when I wasn't that welcome somewhere, or we were playing a game against the school where people had learned this idea that you don't belong and prejudice and things like that.
And so I think, you know, one of the things that I've always said is, “You weren't born that way. You're not, you're taught that.” And so we all are born with an innate need to connect and belong and be a part of something.
And so I just, you know, I remember the feeling of, just that sad kind of feeling. Like, “Well, I only want to play here. I don't want to do anything else.”
That's not okay.
And then having my grandfather explain to me. So I lost a little bit of innocence then. And I think that's one of the things that's real right now is a lot of children have lost their innocence because they've been witnessing, whether their parents wanted them to or not, they couldn't hide them from all the things that were going on right now.
There’s this great line in A Kids Book About Belonging that I want to gift to [our readers] because I think it’s a statement that others will find really, really helpful. I definitely did.
[Kevin writes] “Remember that you must belong to yourself first. I know, I know. You’re wondering, what in the world does that mean? It means you must love yourself, accept yourself, like yourself, appreciate yourself, care for yourself, and support yourself.”
When I was younger, I had low self-esteem as a kid because of my childhood and my background and my parents and all the things that I was navigating as a child.
And when I started playing sports, I got more confidence. And then I was better in school when I got more confidence. And then I was getting feedback from teachers and adults, and I got even more confidence.
And then I started loving myself again. And respecting myself and recognizing that I had something to offer. And so when I say belonging starts with you—you got to belong to yourself, you got to love yourself, you got to respect yourself.
You got to recognize, I have gifts and talents that I can offer. And I just need to nurture that. And the right people will see that. The right people will see that.
And I think that's the thing that really allows you to thrive is when you have the self-confidence to show up genuinely and authentically as you.
The book continues, “When you belong to yourself, just as you are, with no faking or pretending… you’ll always belong, no matter where you are. It makes it OK when you don’t fit in, because you know that you don’t have to. And when you do fit, you know it’s because you’re being YOU!”
Yes. Just being you, right? And knowing you're being you. You're good. Like I'm good because I'm going to be okay.
And when you find people, wow, it just amplifies you. But if you don't, I'll find them. You know what I'm okay cause I know my group, my community. They're out there. There I'll find them eventually.
But I'm going to just keep doing me. I'm going to keep doing me and growing and evolving and getting better and better. I think that's what people will appreciate. That's why they will be attracted to you.
You're not putting on that mask, that mask that's hiding your true you. And I love the fact that that's what it's about: showing up as authentically and genuinely as you.
You belong, listeners. You belong in so many spaces where you will feel welcomed, and you can contribute, and you can help others feel like they belong, too. And that belonging might not always come easy because showing up as our true selves and standing up for what we believe in and who we are… that doesn’t always come easy, either.
And so this is the work that you do, right? To find the things that inspire you. What gets you out of bed in the morning and knowing why.
And what are those things that tickle your brain and spark you? And these are all part of who you are. And the more that you go and explore and try to discover those things, it just starts to form you as this person that keeps showing up consistently. So, yes, when you're younger, you are going to try things, explore, wonder, discover, but when you have those things, go back to something that excites you.
That gets you excited about getting out of bed. Oh, I liked that because it does this for me, or I like that because I really want to learn more about that or I like that because then you've got a reason for being, and that's what we're all trying to assist you with is to encourage you to discover those things.
And so I really think that's what will help you most, right, in getting to this place of belonging to yourself first. What inspires you? [How are you] discovering your passion, right? Those things. And that helps to form the being the person that you are, that shows up and people meet. And so that's how you become really authentic and true to who you are.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we have Kevin Carroll, the author of A Kids Book About Belonging.