BY LAURA FLYNN MCCARTHY
How to weather the challenges of raising a child who is your polar opposite in personality.
She’s a wallflower; you’re the life of the party. Couch potato; soccer star. Stylesetter; slob. When raising an opposite, focus on understanding your child rather than on your differences. Kathy Weymiller describes herself as a “borderline-clumsy nonathlete who loves the arts.” This elementary school principal’s idea of a perfect day includes watching opera on PBS. So, what’s the problem? Her two sons, Alex, 15, and Ben, 13, couldn’t be more different. Not only do they excel in math and science—Kathy’s worst subjects—they’re also athletes. Before she could say “La Bohème,” her life suddenly revolved around basketball and batting practice. “When my sons started playing basketball this year,” Kathy says, “I had to get the For Dummies book because I knew nothing. I’d never even been to a game in my entire life.”
Kathy thought she’d finally have a quiet, artsy kid to join her at the theater when she and her husband adopted their daughter, Ellie, from Russia. Ellie, now 5, has other ideas. “Inside her tiny body is a great big personality,” says Kathy. So much for mommy-daughter quiet time listening to Yo-Yo Ma. Ellie would much rather chase her brothers around. “At their sports games,” Kathy says, “Ellie will march right up to the dugout and shout, ‘All right, boys, I want to see you hustle today!’ And they’ll listen to her!”
Raising a child who’s nothing like you can feel like a voyage to an alternate universe. But it’s also an opportunity to nurture a unique personality rather than experience a mini-me. “Every child is born with a particular temperament, which doesn’t change, only evolves,” explains child development specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of You’re Not the Boss of Me. “From day one, it’s your job to get to know your children; it’s not their job to get to know you.” Still, knowing them can be tricky if you don’t “get them.” Meet six “dynamic duos,” opposing parent-child personalities that clash more than mesh. Our experts sort through their challenges and confusion—so you can discover ways to help your own child thrive.
SpongeBob vs. Zen Master:
Your child is high-spirited; You’re laid-back.
This is his innate temperament; he doesn’t bounce around and beg for attention just to bother you. “Personality is inborn, but how you guide and respond to children can influence their personalities and how well they get along in the world,” says Tanya Altmann, MD, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA and author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Mommy Calls.
What to do:
First, try not to quash your child’s intense feelings, even if they unnerve you. Telling him to “calm down” may make him feel frustrated and rejected. “Instead, say something like ‘I see how upset you are; that situation made you really angry,’” suggests Jenn Berman, PsyD, a Los Angeles–based family therapist and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.
Then give him a schedule and set limits. “Parents who are laid-back may not provide enough structure for a child who is more Type A,” says Dr. Berman. “Your child should know the house rules, have an idea of when he’s eating meals and have a regular bedtime routine. Children feel more in control when they know what’s expected and what comes next.”
Even with structure, your child will still be who he is. Your job is to think beyond your own personality to accommodate his, suggests Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, author of I’m Not Mad—I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict. “Schedule time for him to have active, vigorous and, ideally, outdoor play to blow off steam and energy, and realize you may have to speed up while you’re with him. To take care of yourself, carve out a little downtime every day.” You can also tap into your Zen tendencies to help your child relax and stay in control. Consider mom-kid yoga sessions at Moga Yoga in Macon or deep-breathing exercises to find some calm for both of you.
The Mess vs. Ms. Meticulous
Your child is a slob; You’re neat.
Many kids go through a sloppy phase, which doesn’t mean they’ll be slobs for life. In fact, what seems like a mess to you might bring your child comfort. “Look for the motivation behind the messy room,” says Dr. Berman. “Sometimes it’s a misguided attempt at independence. Sometimes it means I don’t want you to come in and this is how to keep you out. Other times it’s I feel bad about the way I look, so I try on 25 different outfits and I don’t have time to put them away before school.” Of course, sometimes a kid simply may not be as neat as her mom.
What to do:
To let your child know you’d like some cleanup give-and-take, ask questions in a nonaccusatory tone. “Why do you think you’ve been struggling to keep your room clean? Do you need more storage space? Do you have clothes you’ve outgrown that we should donate to charity?” If she’s losing her homework or other important items in the mess, work together to develop a system for putting papers, books, her cell phone and such where she can easily find them. If your kid just needs more privacy, consider giving it to her, as long as she’s clear about not doing things that are off-limits, like texting instead of doing homework, or visiting inappropriate websites.
“Children need space where they can be whoever they want to be,” says Dr. Altmann. “It may not be your dream scenario, but it’s a safe way for them to express themselves and explore their personality.” Try to compromise: Once a week, her sheets are washed and her room is vacuumed. The rest of the time, you let her be—and close the door to her room if that works for you.
The Jock vs. the Couch Potato
Your child is athletic; You’re not.
“It doesn’t matter if you like sports or not,” says Dr. Berman. “What matters is you love your child and want to learn about his world. Letting kids teach us about the things they love helps us connect with them and understand their life.”
What to do:
Never say, “I’m not interested in sports.” Your child will view that as a put-down. Instead, say something like “This isn’t my area of strength, but I’m excited that you love sports.” Look into opportunities at school or in your community for him to play sports, and attend his games. Ask your child questions that allow him to be the expert and to teach you. It will give him a sense of mastery and self-confidence.
For example: “Why do you like being on the field as opposed to being a goalie?”
Use his interest in athletics to get both of you moving. Shoot some hoops together. Ask, “Will you show me how to do a lay-up? I can’t do it.” Says Brown Braun, “Modeling not being good at something is fabulous. It lets your child be the ace and also gives him permission not to be good at something, too.”
The Innie vs. the Outie:
Your child is an introvert; You’re an extrovert.
Although your child’s shyness may worry you because you love to socialize, it’s only a problem if it’s a problem for her. Spending time alone may mean she enjoys her own company, a sign of good self-esteem. She may also like things quieter and less hectic. Talk to her and her teacher to determine how she’s interacting socially at school; could be she’s just cautious and takes her time to make friends—a trait you may want to encourage.
What to do:
“Rather than trying to make your ‘quiet’ child outgoing—which goes against her nature and may make her feel like something’s wrong with her—work off of her strengths,” says Dr. Berman. “She may not be quick to warm up to new people, but is she observant? Does she seem to assess her peers before she plunges into friendships? Point out what she does that works: ‘You got to know Billy before you felt comfortable going to his house. I thought that showed good thinking.’ ‘I could tell you didn’t feel comfortable with Ms. Jones the first time you met her. It’s okay that you didn’t want to hold her hand. I’m glad you did what you thought was best. You should always do that.’”
Role-play ways to meet new people that allow your child to stay in her comfort zone without seeming rude, and do it in baby steps. For instance, instead of telling her, “Say hello to Mr. Smith, look him in the eye, and shake his hand,” which could overwhelm her, say, “I know it may be hard for you to say hi and to look Mr. Smith in the eye, but good manners are a way we respect people.
If you don’t want to say hi, you could smile and wave.” Then have her practice with you. And avoid calling your child “shy” when talking to her or to others in front of her. She is who she is, and that’s fine without labeling her traits.
If you’re worried she isn’t socializing enough with peers, ask if there’s someone she’d like to invite over to play or meet at the park. “Don’t pressure her to try to be the most popular kid in school,” says Dr. Altmann. “Maybe she’s happy with her one friend down the street. If you feel it’s necessary for her to be more popular, that may be your issue, not hers.”
C Student vs. Academic Ace:
Your child dreads report cards; You looked forward to them.
While striving for academic excellence is important, straight A’s are not essential to future success. What you need to assess, however, is whether your child is trying her best and still not getting A’s or she’s slacking off. A’s aside, if she’s really trying, her work ethic will benefit her in the long run. Children who believe they do well on tests because they work hard actually challenge themselves more than those who think they ace tests because they’re naturally smart, according to studies from Stanford University. What’s important is to help your child find her passion and work toward that. “What children need to learn is that education and effort are important; it’s okay to ask for help if they need it; and if they’re working hard and the best they can do is a B, that’s still good,” says Dr. Altmann. “Many successful people got B’s in school.”
What to do:
Problem-solve with your child. If she’s making valiant efforts and not understanding the material, ask her if she’d like a tutor, or see if the teacher can offer extra help. If you suspect your child isn’t doing the work, say something like “What can we do to help you be more responsible about your homework? Let’s come up with ideas together.”
Support her love of learning, and avoid comparisons if she’s less successful in some subjects than others.
“Provide a structure for success that includes a clearly designated time and place for homework and limited screen time during the school week,” says Dr. Cohen-Sandler. “Intrinsic motivation is best, so nurture her genuine intellectual curiosity, even if it’s a narrow or idiosyncratic interest like vintage robots. She can read and expand her learning skills while exploring most any topic.” Even if the subject bores you, show interest in it, and let her teach you what she knows. It will make her want to keep learning. Above all, remember that your child is a different student than you were, and don’t pressure her to get the grades you did. Kids of high-achieving parents can struggle to feel a sense of their own accomplishment.
Artsy Kid vs. All-Thumbs Mom
Your child is artistic; You’re not.
What you need to know You don’t have to be good at art to appreciate it, especially your child’s creations. “Your young Rembrandt’s work can give you insight into his mind,” says Dr. Berman. “That’s why therapists employ art therapy. Creating something with your child is a wonderful opportunity to have fun together and for both of you to let down your inhibitions and get your fingers dirty.”
What to do:
Ask your child specific questions about his art. “Can you tell me how you came to draw the face like that?” “What inspired you to make this?” “Why did you paint the tree three shades of blue?” Answers to these kinds of questions give you peeks into your child’s thinking. “If he says, ‘I used dark colors because I was sad that day,’ you’re learning something about how he feels,” explains Dr. Berman. Check into children’s art programs at your local library, museums such as the Museum of Arts and Sciences, or your child’s school. Talk to his art teacher about his potential and how you can encourage it—perhaps by providing the right materials at home. Visit museums with him. The High Museum in Atlanta (60 miles) is one of the best in the nation and offers almost daily children’s programs. Read books or watch programs about artists together. Some parents may worry that encouraging a talented young artist may steer him toward an artistic—and maybe not so lucrative—career. Ultimately, you need to allow your child to follow his passions. He’ll be what he’ll be; at the end of the day, it’s not up to you.
Whether your kids share traits with you, your partner or neither, all kids are individuals with surprising interests and abilities. To pigeonhole them as “just like us” or “like nobody I know” may serve to limit their potential to grow into creative and unique adults. In fact, one of the great joys of parenting is seeing life through your child’s eyes. The more different he is from you, the fresher that perspective. Take time to know, appreciate and encourage his singular personality and you’ll not only see the world in a new way, you’ll see something even more exciting: how your child fits into it.
You and your different-from-you kid have hit an impasse—again. The best way to reconnect? Try a paradigm shift. “It’s like when your infant cried and your pediatrician said, ‘Take him out in the cold night air,’” says Brown Braun. “You need some cold night air in your relationship with your child, to do something you both enjoy and get some perspective.” Simple activities that can bring even the most stubborn parents and children back together:
• Go for a walk or drive, leaving cell phones and iPods at home.
• Cook or bake together. Food can be a great connector.
• Toss a ball in the backyard.
• Go shopping at a store you both like.
• Watch a funny film together.
• Go out for ice cream—the universal problem-solver. J
Courtesy of Working Mother magazine. For more information, please visit www.WorkingMother.com.