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Parenting Style: Tune into Your Child's True Nature

From the moment a couple learn they're expecting, the hopes, plans, and dreaming begin. What will their baby be like? Whose personality will he or she inherit? It's natural for parents to envision an absolutely perfect child -- one with all of their good qualities and none of their faults. That's why the reality is often so hard to accept.

The mother of 4-year-old Greg would like her son to be outgoing and friendly. "If I take him to a birthday party or the playground, he clings to me the whole time. I hate to admit it, but it drives me crazy."

Five-year-old Sarah's dad complains, "This child is so strong-willed, so determined to get what she wants, we're always fighting. She never backs down until we punish her. Her mother and I feel like cops."

"When Jessica was born, I used to picture us having great mother-daughter talks someday," sighs the mother of a 7-year-old. "But she doesn't talk much at all. I guess I thought we'd be closer."

Behind each of these observations lies a well of powerful and confusing emotions: "I wish I could feel different toward my child." "Sometimes I think I don't love him as much as I should." "If she weren't mine, I don't know how much I'd even like her. Isn't that a terrible thing to say?"

These parents feel let down -- not because they wish their child had blue eyes or curly hair or was a better reader but because of something fundamental about their son or daughter that they find difficult to accept. Their deep disappointment in their children and in themselves as parents is heartbreaking. "What's the matter with me?" they may wonder. Or "What's wrong with my child?" Feelings of guilt and blame may start to color all aspects of family life. If you, like the parents described above, are experiencing these feelings, chances are you've decided that there's not much that can be done to improve the picture. But that is not the case.

The first step is to realize that your child's behavior is not intentionally designed to drive you crazy. Your child can't help being the way he is, and if you understand the roots of his behavior, you'll be more likely to empathize with and accept him. Acceptance is key, because the way you view your child becomes the way he views himself. He'll learn to trust and accept his own feelings and develop what psychologists call positive self-regard, the basis of healthy emotional development. The next step is to remember the flip side of the coin: The very qualities that make a child hard to like or live with may serve him well in many areas of life.

Keep in mind, too, that the better you can embrace your child in all his uniqueness, the better able you will be to channel his more difficult behavior -- so that as he grows, his strengths will shine and you'll get more fun out of being his parent. Here are four traits that parents find hardest to cope with -- and how to help.

Four-year-old Philip is unusually withdrawn -- "the kind of kid who looks at his feet when grown-ups speak to him," says his mother. "Even with other kids, he's always on the outside looking in." Philip is reluctant to try anything new, whether it's a novel food or a different route to take to school. His mom sometimes feels sad for him, but more often she's impatient with or embarrassed by his rigid behavior.

What to Understand: Realize that your child is likely not the first shrinking violet in the family. Researchers are finding that sociability is largely an inherited trait, and a shy youngster is probably biologically predisposed to be that way. But what if you and your spouse are outgoing types yourselves? Draw a family tree and trace shyness through the generations. You may remember that your uncle Lou or your grandfather or another relative was not very social. This might make it easier for you to accept your child's temperament, which is the first step in changing your own reactions. You'll see that pushing him to join the other kids -- and feeling annoyed and frustrated when he'd rather cling to you -- will get you nowhere and can even lead him to become more anxious.

The Plus Side: The naturally withdrawn child tends to be thoughtful and levelheaded as he matures. He is likely to take stock and weigh his options before acting. Your youngster may become a good observer of people and situations. Like many children with this nature, he may have a strong ability to understand others' feelings.

What to Do: With your help, a shy child can gradually learn to become a great deal more socially comfortable. If possible, let him practice being in a new place or situation beforehand -- e.g., visit a karate class or school facility together before the class starts, to dispel some of the unfamiliarity; or you can sit in on his playdate with a new friend. Just stay in the background as a reassuring presence. Once he has a social success or two under his belt, he'll be ready for more. After a playdate, a new extracurricular class, or a party, get some feedback about how it went. You might ask, "What were some of the games you played? Who did you play with?" and then, if necessary, "What do you think would make it easier for you next time?" Children as young as 3 will often have specific suggestions. After one party, for example, Philip told his mom that he hated walking in when all the other kids were already there. "The next time we had someplace to go, I made sure he was the first to arrive so he wasn't overwhelmed by all those kids," she says. "That made a big difference. The whole afternoon went better."

"Sarah's needs are the only things that matter to her at any given moment," says the mother of a 5-year-old, "whether it's buying some ice cream or not turning off the TV. She never knows when to stop arguing. Sometimes I think she's just selfish!"

The parents of kids who are relentlessly demanding often seek my advice. But their feelings confuse them. On the one hand, they like having a strong and determined child. On the other hand, they're living through ten standoffs a day, during which their child will do or say anything -- even "I hate you, you're stupid" -- to get her way. Then they begin to feel, as Sarah's parents do, that their youngster is manipulative or even ruthless.

What to Understand: Most tenacious children are hardwired to be the way they are. Sarah's father thought back over her history and realized that "ever since this girl came out of the womb, she's set her sights on what she wants." She had a voracious appetite and nursed ferociously, he recalls. If a toy she liked was put away, no amount of cajoling could distract her from the object of her desire.

The Plus Side: Although this is hard to keep in mind, especially when you're in the middle of yet one more power struggle, your child's persistence will serve her well over time. Whatever she chooses to do -- study piano, excel at ice skating, learn her spelling words -- she'll stick with it. She's also more likely to be confident in general and less likely to be pushed around at school.

What to Do: Life will certainly be more pleasant with fewer power struggles, so choose your battles. If your willful child hates taking a bath and every evening brings a major head-to-head, ask yourself if the daily bath really matters. You may decide it doesn't. If you bathe her every other day, you'll reduce the fights by 50 percent, and your child will not be noticeably less well-off or less clean.

Sarah's mother actually kept a written log of a week's worth of fights between her and her daughter and then considered what was important to her and what wasn't: "It bothers me when she calls people names. And I will not tolerate any hitting or pushing of her sister." But a number of other battles, such as what Sarah would wear on a given day or have for breakfast, she let go. "There's so much less fuss now over getting dressed and out in the morning," she says. "It's a miracle!" Offering limited choices is a strategy that works with confrontational kids. "I give her two or three options," says Sarah's mother. "I'll say, 'Do you want to brush your teeth now or later?' Or 'Shall we read a story before you get into your pajamas?' She likes to call the shots, and this is a no-hassle way to let her do that."

When you opt to disengage from some of the standoffs, your child's overall level of stubbornness goes down. This may very well move her a bit along the continuum from very stubborn to merely determined.

The nontalker can make a parent feel lonely, cut off from the child's life, and lacking a real sense of companionship. Even when kids do talk, some parents admit to being disappointed by the superficiality of their conversations. "I don't hear much about what goes on with my son, except for Pokémon or the latest TV show," says the father of 7-year-old Sean. "I feel guilty saying this, but talking with him is boring."

What to Understand: If a normally expressive chatterbox suddenly turns mute, it's a signal that something in her life warrants attention. But a good many young children just naturally hold their cards close to the chest. The fact is that children vary greatly in the development of communication skills: Remembering things and being able to sequence a story, organize thoughts, and choose the right words to describe something are capacities that come to some kids later. But a child's limited expressiveness may improve greatly over time.

The Plus Side: Just because your child isn't a talker, don't assume there's nothing going on inside her head. Nonverbal kids often express themselves in actions rather than words. A warm hug, a thoughtful gift, or even doing a chore without being asked are some of the ways in which quiet children show their love.

What to Do: The father of one generally tight-lipped child noticed that "Andrew liked to gab when he was taking his bath. That's when we'd hear about who was nice in school, what he didn't like about his teacher, and so on." So this alert dad built a routine around bathtime, setting up a chair for himself beside the tub while his son chatted and played with his toy boats. When he was about 7, Andrew wanted more privacy, "so we'd talk through the shower curtain," says his father. Different children open up at different times of the day; figure out when or where your youngster becomes relatively more talkative and try to be there then. Maybe it's on the drive to school in the morning or in bed at night when you're rubbing his back. Be open, ready, and available to hear what's on his mind.

Many kids find talking more comfortable when they're doing something else at the same time. Ask a direct question and you probably won't get a direct answer. But play a game of checkers, get her to help you put away groceries, or plop on the floor to draw pictures together -- anything that takes the focus off communicating -- and you might suddenly get a casual update on her life.

"She was the child who climbed up the bookshelves," says the mother of 6-year-old Livvie. "From the time she first started walking -- at 9 months -- it's been full speed ahead." In fact, Livvie's parents are quiet types who don't always enjoy being around their energetic daughter. "I really feel she's more than I can handle," sighs her mom.

The Plus Side: Children with high energy levels are doers, so you will never have a couch potato on your hands. They're lively participants in whatever is going on, and their enthusiasm is often contagious.

What to Do: To give yourself a break, help your youngster channel all that energy in better ways. Sign her up for soccer, gymnastics, or swimming -- anything that allows her to move around freely for a good stretch of time. Livvie's parents got her involved in an outdoor play program three afternoons a week. "By the end of one of those days," says her mother, "she's more content and cooperative." As a result, her parents are starting to enjoy her more.

At home, try to bring the action down to a manageable level by controlling your child's environment. Paradoxically, giving a high-energy child fewer toys, fewer choices, and a smaller space can sometimes calm her down. Faced with three toys instead of ten, she'll choose one or two and stick with them longer. Child therapists have learned that the smaller and less cluttered their offices, the less revved up kids get.

Look for clues to what makes your child frenetic (and what drives you crazy). Is it when she's hungry, tired, or playing a particular game with a friend? Try giving her something to eat every two hours, sticking to the same bedtime religiously, or putting that game away when her friend comes over. Those minor adjustments might make a difference.

The message is simple: Stop fighting who your child is. Only then can you work toward mutual accommodation and understanding. Accepting your child's basic characteristics will not only help him learn to accept himself, it will also enable you to be a happier and more fulfilled parent.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2000 issue of Parents magazine.