My two-year-old son, Tyler, amazed me as I watched him methodically stack his Legos by color and number. Tyler also displayed his keen organizational bent whenever we played his favorite game, Categories. When I called out a word such as "lion," he'd cry out, "tiger!" Then me: "um uh giraffe!" Tyler refused to quit until my brain got fuzzy, and he'd triumphantly win our game.
So when Child Number Two, Aimee, came along, I tried playing Categories with her. But if the category was food, and I called out "cake!" she'd follow with "birthday party!" then "Andrea!" (a friend who'd had a recent birthday). Free association was more up her alley, as was anything to do with people and parties. Find a tangent, and she'd fling herself headlong after it.
Our third child, Elisa, emerged contemplative, moody, and quiet a far cry from her mother and siblings. At age two, she told us she wanted to go hot-air ballooning and climb the 14-foot-high rock wall at an athletic store. And ever since viewing the Olympics on TV at age three, she's called an old parade ribbon her "gold medal."
The same personality traits I first noticed back in diaper days still are very present today. Aimee, who as a newborn beamed at strangers, now at age 11 must budget her allowance for gifts for all her friends. Fifteen-year-old Tyler's incredible organizational skills help him understand mathematical equations and research complex issues for school projects. And Elisa? I have no doubt one day she will, after seeing photos of a remote place in National Geographic, catch the next flight out. (Now four years old, she's already scaled that climbing wall.)
Through the years, I've paid close attention to how my children's traits affect their behavior with each other and me. Not only have these observations helped me be more patient with them and myself, but they've also helped me teach and play with my children in more meaningful, intimate, fun ways. I'm awed by how they remind me that God truly does create unique individualsfrom the swirls on the tips of their fingers to the way they see the world. I've learned that the more you understand their unique design, the more you can delight in your children. Here's how.
Do your homework. One friend once told me, "You really seem to know and enjoy your children." I had to laugh. One of the first books I read as a young mom was Know Your Child by Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas.
Sorting through differences between age-appropriate behavior and inborn tendencies can be a bit tricky. Most 16 month olds are busy, busy! But in some children, certain traits appear even before birth. For instance, my high-energy Aimee beat me up in utero, and after she was born, I could feel the restlessness in her legs before she began to run at 10 months old.
The good news is, there's a wealth of resources available about various personality traits. While different authors break down personality traits into specific types, researchers commonly identify clusters of traits, then label them as personality types, identifying their common strengths and weaknesses. For example, a talkative, energetic, playful person often is disorganized. Conversely, a highly organized, analytical achiever may be responsible, yet critical of self and others. A third type cares most about harmonious relationships. But as a peacemaker, she may lack courage to stand up for herself. And a fourth personality type, the natural-born leader, may be short on humility and the ability to release control to others (including parents or God).
To discover your child's design, start by jotting down your impressions of his behavior. What strongly interests your child? Is it books? Bugs? And what energizes your childbeing with people or organizing stuff? What traits do you see in your child, and how does he or she express them? As you ponder your observations, you'll glean insight into what frustrates or excites your child, and into how you and your child can interact more effectively.
For example, when Tyler was a preschooler, I called him for dinner repeatedly one evening while he was working on a picture puzzle of an elephant. Dinner was getting cold, and I, annoyed. Then I realized that because of Tyler's high level of persistence and organization, he was torn between his desire to obey me and his overriding compulsion to finish what he'd started. So I said, "Tyler, I know you really want to finish that puzzle right now. But we're all waiting for you. You can finish the elephant's head right now, then finish the rest after dinner." He seemed genuinely relieved to have his struggle acknowledged and to be allowed some sense of completion. Ever since then, I've discovered that a five- to ten-minute warning to wrap things up helps Tyler mentally disengage from projects.
Remember, labeling your child is less important than recognizing inborn traits and desires. Most people don't fit neatly into any one category. But familiarity with common combinations of traits (and their associated struggles and benefits) can help you better understand and guide your child.
Beware of hidden pitfalls. Although it feels good to become an authority on your child, avoid making broad assumptions about her. As fun as it is to peg people, kids aren't always predictable. I'm absolutely astonished at how responsible and organized in school my Aimee's turned out to be. I'm humbled by the realization that while God created her a certain way at birth, she continues to be a work in progressas we all are.
Other pitfalls include unfair labeling and diminished or too-high expectations. These may cause you to inadvertently pit your kids against each other. Sometimes even well-intended compliments from parent to child in front of a sibling promote unhealthy competition.
Labeling children aloud (calling one the "organized" child or another "disorganized") may lead children to feel they must fit the label to meet expectations. The organized one might feel superior to his siblings; the other might excuse his behavior with a shrug, saying, "Oh well! That's just methe disorganized one." Show your children you have faith in their ability to change behaviors that harm relationships or limit productivity.
Remember, as Christ dwells within us, we grow and change. Thankfully, we can add to our personality traits those of Christthe fruits of his Spiritincluding self-control and patience (Galatians 5:22,23). Teach your children to seek these attributes from God, and ask his help when they struggle. They need to understand they're loved for who they are. But their unique traits never should be used as an excuse for sin.
Realize clashes can happen. If you're quiet by nature, a nonstop chatterer may annoy you, no matter how much you love your child. Conversely, if you're sociable, you may lose patience with a shy thinker who has trouble expressing feelings and thoughts. A child who from toddlerhood on debates every issue may drive you nutsespecially when half the time he's right!
You also may feel mixed emotions when your child displays traits with which you struggle. One mom, Lisa Kragerud, says a sitter once told her, "Your daughter's so stubborn!" Lisa responded, "How dare you label my baby! She's only seven months old!" But Lisa too had seen that stubborn streak from day one, when her baby refused to be fed or held by others.
Says Lisa, "It was hard to think of my daughter being labeled this way because I was stuck with that label as a child. I didn't mean to be a problem; I just had strong feelings about the way things should be." Lisa sees her daughter, now age ten, struggling with friendships because of this.
Sometimes the qualities a parent and child share unknowingly cause problems between them. After reading Kurcinka's book, Raising Your Spirited Child, I realized how often I accidentally deterred my easily distracted Aimee. Why? Because I too am easily distracted. I would tell her, "Go get your shoes on!" Then, to my great impatience, I'd find her wandering. But, oopsrewind that tape. As Aimee dutifully pulled her socks on, I called from the other room, "And don't forget your coat and is it your show-and-tell day?" I've had to acknowledge my personality traits sometimes frustrate my children.
Find the positive spin. All traits are valuable under certain circumstances. The child who has trouble sticking to a task probably was easy to diaper because you could distract him with a toy. He's also more likely to be flexible and spontaneous when you want to go somewhere in a hurry.
Unfortunately, some traits typically labeled as negative lead to feelings of inferiority or discouragementeven fear of disability. This often is the case when personality traits that affect learning styles aren't well accommodated in your child's educational environment. But keep in mind, the child who seems unable to sit still in class someday may be a dynamite evangelist. Or the child who loves to chatter someday may be a gifted salesperson or professional speaker!
My friend Lisa sees the positive side of her daughter's stubborn streak. Her daughter, like Lisa, is a leader, not a follower; outgoing, not shy. Those attributes enabled Lisa to say "no" to drugs and other temptations as a teen, and helped her become a successful Creative Memories ® consultant/public speaker.
Appreciate in meaningful ways. I never stop loving my children. But I admit there are days when I haven't appreciated them much. That's why I've had to consider the definitions of the word appreciate: "To recognize the quality, significance, or magnitude of. 2. To be fully aware of; realize. 3. To be thankful or show gratitude for. 4. To admire greatly; value. Synonyms: value, prize, esteem, treasure, cherish" (The American Heritage College Dictionary).
How can you best show your children you appreciate them? Children often express love and appreciation in ways they'd most like to receive it. Aimee makes it clear "words of affirmation" (from author Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages) touch her the most. I often receive notes from her saying, "Mom is the greatest!" Once she taped an envelope labeled "Mail" to her door. I finally put a note in it after a week. I could have kicked myself when I overheard her exclaim, "Yes! Finally!" I've discovered that acts of service seem more important to Tylerlike making me breakfast in bed. He gets more excited when I whip him up a smoothie than when I write him a mushy note.
Find Awe In God's Handiwork. I find the verses in Psalm 139:13-16 to be most intimate when I claim them for my family, as you can with yours: "For you created [my child's] inmost being; you knit [him/her] together in [my] womb. I praise you because [my child] is fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. [My child's] frame was not hidden from you when [he/she] was made in the secret place. When [he/she] was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw [his/her] unformed body. All the days ordained for [my child] were written in your book before one of them came to be."
I'm in awe of God's creativity when I think of how uniquely he's designed my children. You too can experience more joy at seeing your child's accomplishments, more hope in the special plan God has for his or her life. With the help of the Holy Spirit, think what mighty things God can do with your child's temperament, interests, and natural gifts! Rejoice in that.
Laurie Winslow Sargent, author of The Power of Parent-Child Play (Tyndale) and Delight in Your Child's Design (Tyndale/Focus on the Family), lives with her family in Washington State. Check out Laurie's website at www.ParentChildPlay.com.
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