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What's Your Toddler's Personality Type?

From the moment she was born, Andrea Kaye's toddler, Sally, was a firecracker. "She's been outgoing from Day 1," says the mom from Brooklyn. "Now she's more active than ever -- running around like a nut, waving at strangers, and letting us know exactly what she wants or doesn't want, whether it's spitting out her peas or refusing to give up her bottle."

Most of us realize that our children have a distinct personality from the get-go, and experts agree: "Some aspects of a child's temperament are essentially hardwired," says Jonathan Pochyly, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. "Many are predisposed to, say, being shy. But that doesn't mean you can't help guide and influence your child's behavior." In fact, there are plenty of ways to help your little one feel comfortable with who she is and to realize her full potential. So go ahead and pick one of the four common personality types that best sums up your kid. Then find out how to nurture those special qualities and quirks!

The Wallflower

Your shy child may be anxious on unfamiliar terrain and may be more an observer than a joiner. Since new situations can be hard for slow-to-warm-up children, give her time to feel at ease.

How to bring out her best:

  • Let her (literally) lean on you. When she is meeting someone new, hold your toddler in your arms and speak in a soothing, calming voice.
  • Take it slowly. This child won't enjoy being swooped up by a distant relative for a big wet kiss. Suggest that offering a favorite toy will help her connect.
  • Mix new tastes with familiar ones. "Cautious kids may also be tentative about trying new foods," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit research and education organization in Washington, D.C. Give her something familiar, like applesauce, that she can dip the new food into.
  • Prep her. If you're going somewhere new, fill her in about what to expect. Dogs, siblings, swing set -- the more she knows, the more comfortable she'll be.
  • Value her personal style. Not everyone needs to be a social butterfly. There's nothing wrong with a child who has a few treasured friends and likes to keep things low-key. So don't be pushy, and don't make your child feel "less than" if she's not mixing it up with other kids. Instead, join her in observing the energy around her, without pressuring her to enter the fray.

The Zen Child

He's a dream come true, with a calm, go-with-the-flow, always-sunny disposition. That doesn't mean, however, that easy children are all smooth sailing. In fact, it might be harder to get or hold his attention, and he still needs lots of love and time.

How to bring out his best:

  • Reinforce positive behavior. Don't forget to praise your little one when he does what you ask. If your easygoing guy sees his more unruly big brother getting a lot of attention, he might imitate the bad behavior to get some himself.
  • Offer a hand. "Easygoing kids can get lost in the shuffle," says Lerner. "So let your child know that it's okay if he asks for your help."
  • Keep your expectations realistic. The Zen child can have tantrums and act out, just like anyone else, so don't come down harder on him just because his meltdown is an aberration.
  • Tune in to his signals. "When a child is extremely easygoing, we can sometimes overlook his needs and feelings," says Lerner. Just because his feelings aren't obvious doesn't mean things don't upset him.
  • Join in his play. Parents often let mellow children hang out on their own, which fosters independence but thwarts interactive learning. Be sure to give him plenty of options and choices -- from dinner to toys -- and initiate conversations.

The Spitfire

Joyful, energetic, and entertaining, he'll also dig in his heels and let you know loudly and clearly when he's unhappy.

How to bring out his best:

  • Anticipate blowups. If he's had a meltdown under one set of circumstances, he'll likely have one again. For example, if he has a hard time sharing on playdates, gently steer him from the toy chest when friends are over and involve him in a group activity.
  • Keep things calm. The spitfire can be easily overstimulated. When you sense that he's at his breaking point, soften the lights and play soothing music.
  • Give clear directions. Your kid can be impulsive. "When you need him to pay attention to what you're saying, get down on his level and make eye contact," advises Laurie LeComer, author of A Parent's Guide to Developmental Delays.
  • Enjoy his energy! Feisty kids are passionate, loving, and creative. They need healthy ways to express their feelings.

The Explorer

She's the one barreling around the playground, darting toward anything that catches her eye. These kids are confident and likely to become leaders, but their fearlessness can also send them running headlong into unsafe situations.

How to bring out her best:

  • Treat your explorer like a big kid. Allow her to handle safe "grown-up" objects like a toothbrush, remote control, or telephone -- and praise her for using them correctly.
  • Make exceptions to the rules. "Intrepid kids are independent children, and that's a good thing," says Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. "Sometimes, letting them have extra time at the playground, for example, helps them feel like you're working with, not against, them." So make exceptions to the rules once in a while.
  • Insist on naptime! She'll resist because she's so interested in everything that's going on, but an overtired child will be harder to manage and calm down.
  • Avoid monotony. Explorers are in constant motion because they thrive on and learn through movement. So skip passive stuff like sitting in front of the TV.
  • Turn your home into a playground. After you've toddler-proofed your house (a must, regardless of personality type), let her blow off steam by creating an obstacle course with pillows, stacking empty boxes for exploring, or playing hide-and-seek.

The labels we give our children may stick with them forever, says Dr. Harvey Karp. So make sure that you're accentuating the positive! These simple substitutes can go a long way toward making your child feel he's great.

Old Label: Shy
New Label: Careful
Why It Works: A shy child hides from the world, but a careful one just takes smarter steps when he goes out into it.

Old Label: Wild
New Label: Energetic
Why It Works: Wild implies out-of-control, while energetic describes a child who's enthusiastic about life.

Old Label: Fussy
New Label: Selective
Why It Works: Fussy connotes crabbiness and pickiness, while selective means he won't settle for anything less than the best.

Old Label: Stubborn
New Label: Tenacious
Why It Works: A stubborn child refuses to give in without knowing why, while a tenacious one is a fighter who won't quit.

Old Label: Slowpoke
New Label: Thoughtful
Why It Works: Slowpoke sends the signal that a child is lazy, while thoughtful indicates he's taking the time to consider his options.

Old Label: Defiant
New Label: Courageous
Why It Works: A defiant child refuses to do anything that's asked of him, while a courageous one sticks up for what he believes in.

Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.