How to Parent a Kid Who's Nothing Like You
When your kid’s personality is the opposite of yours, parenting may take some extra love and understanding.
Raising any human being is hard, but when that human is nothing like you, the degree of difficulty goes way up. “You’re going to spend a lot of time outside your comfort zone,” says Laura Markham, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “It’s harder to relate to them, to connect with them, and to value what they value.” You may also have to work through some disappointment if you envisioned a specific type of child and got another. “But when I point out to parents that the child is merely different than they are, a lightbulb goes off, and a breakthrough can happen,” says Markham. Ready for yours?
You’re outgoing and will happily talk to every cashier. Your little guy struggles with saying hello to his own grandparents. And forget about looking a waiter in the eye.
Why it’s so frustrating: Having a shy child can make the most benign social encounters awkward and exhausting. You stress over the possibility of people thinking your child is rude and worry you’re being judged. “It can be frustrating for an extroverted mom to have to remind her child to say something as seemingly simple as please and hello,” says Susan Cain, cofounder of Quiet Revolution and author of Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids.
How to meet halfway: Know this: “When children don’t want to say thank you or make small talk, they’re not doing it out of rudeness—they’re truly struggling with shyness,” says Cain. It’s a different motive and should be approached as such. “The key is that the parent needs to be in the right heart place,” she says. “I know that sounds hokey, but you don’t want your child to feel that you’re impatient or ashamed.” You can’t let kids opt out either, so get down on their level and encourage them. “Say, ‘This is an important thing to do, and you’re going to get there,’ ” says Cain. “Tell them you’ll work on it together and take each encounter as it comes. If they don’t say hello this time, you’ll try again next time.” It’s fine to sweeten the deal with an incentive. But don’t push for perfection. “Once you feel your child has stepped outside his comfort zone and achieved something that was previously difficult, declare victory and move on,” says Cain. Maybe that means he said hello but didn’t make eye contact—OK! Praise the hello and work on the eye contact later. “There’s so much pressure for little kids to behave in extroverted ways,” says Cain. “But there’s a lot of time to learn this stuff.”
Dealing with the reverse: What if you’re shy and your child won’t stop chatting up the store clerks? Outsource! “I can sit in silence for hours, but my oldest will talk to anyone,” says Sarah G., a mother of three. “When I need a break, I trade kids with my extroverted neighbor. She’ll take my daughter over to play with her daughter, and I’ll take her son, who’s happy to quietly build Lego creations with my more introverted son.” No lifeline in sight? Give your child boundaries. “Tell him that it’s wonderful he’s so friendly and curious and that sometimes, even though people might like you a lot, they still want to be quiet,” suggests Cain. “Teach him how to occupy himself with a book or coloring.”
You played every sport. Your daughter has no interest. What’s childhood without weekends spent on a grassy field?
Why it’s so frustrating: You worry she’ll miss out on friendships and exercise. But really, your ego is in play. “Any parent who had a sport they identified with will get their yearnings and projections triggered when a child gets to the age to begin playing,” says Markham. “If it turns out the child has no interest or ability, the parent may very well feel let down.”
How to meet halfway: First, you’ve got to grieve. “The faster parents can mourn the fact that they’re not going to have a superstar on the field, the faster they’ll realize how much more free time they’ll have on the weekends,” says Whitney L., a former college athlete and a mother of three. And the faster you can help your child find a passion of her own. Let her try yoga, rock climbing, or karate. “Ask lots of questions to help your child make a good choice, like what she thinks the activity will be like, why she wants to try it, and what she thinks might be hard about it,” says Markham. Look for a trial ballet class, or attend a practice or clinic before you commit. “There is no reason to make a young child stick with something she knows right away that she hates,” says Markham. “Even 4-year-olds should have the autonomy to express their preferences.”
Dealing with the reverse: If your kid sees more value in athletics than you do, “research coaches and clubs that promote the values you want your child to develop—sportsmanship, commitment, and a focus on development, not results,” says Lauren Gallagher, PhD, a school psychologist and cofounder of Sync It Up Sports. Hit up other parents for the basics (if it’s lacrosse, be prepared to be confused), then just cheer.
You were a flash card–making, straight-A student; your teenager prefers to wing it and isn’t fazed by bad grades.
Why it’s so frustrating: Because somewhere deep down, you base your level of success on that of your kid. “This is especially prevalent in highly educated communities, where the feeling of competition is heavy in the air,” says Gallagher.
How to meet halfway: “Emphasize learning and hard work, not achievement,” she says. (It matters that he gives it his all, not that he gets an A.) And be available to help when he needs it. Oh, he doesn’t like the assignment? “Create chores in your own home to teach him that sometimes we need to do things we really don’t want to do.” If he’s an athlete, remind him how he works his tail off at practice and leaves it all on the field during games—and what a good feeling that gives him. Make that a model for school. “See him for who he is. If he feels that acceptance, he’ll be more likely to take your advice,” says Gallagher.
Dealing with the reverse: Celebrate that you’ve got a go-getter you won’t have to bribe to do homework. That said, “you may have to go the other way and help him cope with the disappointment of not always achieving perfection,” says Gallagher. “You want your child to have skills for dealing with failure.” When something doesn’t turn out aces, make a big deal about how he survived. “Help him create a script he can say to himself to keep it all in perspective,” says Gallagher. “ ‘Oh well, no one is perfect. I’ll work hard to do better next time.’ ” Tell him about that time (or times) you got a bad grade and lived.
You have always had a very thick skin; your child might burst into tears if someone looks at her the wrong way.
Why it’s so frustrating: “It can be embarrassing to always have the crying kid,” says Suzi Lula, a parenting educator and the author of The Motherhood Evolution. The other kids are happily bouncing in a bounce house, and yours is sobbing because someone cleared her birthday cake before she was finished. And when you try to quiet her down—“Don’t cry! Don’t cry!”—it only makes things worse. “Telling your child what not to do is about trying to alleviate your anxiety instead of hers,” says Lula.
How to meet halfway: Try this simple phrase: “It’s so understandable.” When we accept sensitivity instead of shushing it, kids don’t have to act it out as much. Say, “It’s so understandable you would be upset your cake is gone. I’d be upset, too!” As you empathize, you’ll see her whole body relax, says Lula: “Every child just wants to look up to a grown-up and think, ‘Oh, they see me.’ ”
Dealing with the reverse: Show your kid it’s OK to emote. “We’re taught to push an emotion away—eat it away, spend it away, drink it away, anything but feel it,” says Lula. Model for your child how to communicate feelings in a healthy way. Try, “Honey, I feel sensitive and confused when you roll your eyes. Can you put into words what you are trying to say?”
You were super social and regularly had five-person sleepovers; your child would rather be alone.
Why it’s so frustrating: You’re projecting how you would have felt if you were solo after school. The horror! “An extroverted mom recalls getting so much joy from being in the mix socially,” says Cain. You may also be concerned with keeping up if he’s not involved in 15 after-school activities like the Joneses’ kids.
How to meet halfway: Ask, “Is my child happy?” “Introverted kids recharge their batteries by spending time alone, so while it may pain you to see it, they are likely content reading a book or painting,” says Cain. But if you suspect social anxiety is holding him back, you can help. Cain suggests saying, “I think you know that you will enjoy this thing, but I can see that you’re uncomfortable, so we’re going to take small steps.” Get to parties at the start so your kid can get his bearings, and stay close by until he’s comfortable.
Dealing with the reverse: Help your social butterfly help others. “I remember what it was like to be the shy one,” says Emma Brandt, co-founder of A Mighty Lass, a girls empowerment company in Huntington, New York. “I encourage my extroverted daughter to notice when other kids may be having a tougher time getting involved and try to make them feel comfortable and included.”