There is no shortage of parenting books on the market right now. Choose a parenting style or theory and, chances are, there are at least two books to back you up. In some ways this is a very good thing. While previous generations will maintain that they relied on instinct, and that is the best way to parent, parents today face different challenges. A little bit of guidance can go a long way.
The complicating factor is that many parenting books are focused on specific parenting styles, ignoring the fact that all kids are different. Often children have very different temperaments, even within the same family, and have very different needs. The temperament of your child plays an important role in how you should parent your child. Harvey Karp, MD, said it best in his book, “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”: “Temperament explains why some of us can sleep with the TV on while others go nuts with the tiniest noise, why some forgive easily and others just can’t let go. Knowing your child’s temperament helps you know when to pamper and when to push.”
In general, toddler personalities are broken down into the following categories (although many kids will fit into more than one):
Easy or happy, not action-packed: These kids generally transition well and enjoy new people and experiences. They don’t get angry easily, but they don’t let others walk all over them.
Shy or slow to warm: These kids are quiet and curious and slow to warm up to new people. They are often sensitive to the feel of their clothes and require ample time to make transitions. They tend to be gentle and sensitive souls, and do not do well with loud voices and criticism.
Spirited: Spirited is the nice word for the “stop climbing the walls!” child who is always on the go. These kids need a lot of action, can be impatient, have mood shifts throughout the day, and can be challenging at times.
Thinking about where your children fit into these general categories can be very enlightening. It can really help you figure out how to structure your days so that your kids can have the best days possible (of course we know that there will always be a few obstacles).
The two most common concerns in my inbox are that children are either “too shy” or “they never listen”. In essence, parents worry when they have slow to warm children and spirited children.
As the parent of a slow to warm three year old (I actually don’t like to use the word “shy” because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if kids hear that often), I can tell you that a slow and steady routine is always the best course of action. These kids do not like change and need frequent warnings so that they know what comes next. While he is always happy the minute his feet hit the pavement, my son would stay home every day just to be safe if it were up to him. They fear new environments and will sometimes refuse to try new classes for fear that they won’t enjoy them. This can be frustrating for parents, as it can lead to feeling trapped. Try the classes, just do it in a way that works for your child. Structured, short classes like Gymboree Play are great for these kids. These classes follow a specific routine so your child will always know what to expect. No curveballs. Empathize often. When your child starts to become upset or resist entering a class, party, etc. hold him close and say, “I know you’re feeling scared because you’ve never been here before. I will be right here and you can stay right by my side until you feel comfortable.” These kids will probably never run right into the birthday party, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t enjoy it. Limiting the time you spend in over-stimulating environments is important for these kids. I always plan to leave a party after 45 minutes with my son. If he wants to stay, great…but we are always ready to go.
I often have parents approach me when they are completely out of patience with their spirited child. “Nothing works”, is a common complaint among these parents. They are exhausted and out of ideas.
Spirited children need a lot of exercise. Let me say that again…a lot of exercise. These kids need to burn off excess energy and work through those mood shifts. They need action. They also need a firm structure in place with rules that are easy to understand and do not change. In short, they need a playbook. When they know what is expected of them, they have a better chance of following the rules. They will always test limits, it’s what they do, but they will also learn to internalize those limits (provided that they remain constant). Although they might present as kids who need very little sleep to function, don’t let them fool you. All young children need adequate rest to stay healthy, active, and enjoy their days. What they do need is a structured bedtime routine that allows extra time for wandering and distractions. These are the kids who always need to do “just one last thing” before they settle down for the night.
And let’s not forget about those happy, easy-going kids in the middle. Sometimes the most adaptable kids are the ones who end up getting lost in the crowd. Their tendency to go with the flow and please others can mean that they don’t get as much attention from their parents or teachers. Be sure to factor in special time with them and find a shared interest, this will keep you connected.
As mentioned earlier, many kids probably do not fit into one specific personality type. Paying attention to the nuances of their behavior will help you hone in on how to help them. Being more on the spirited side does not mean that your child will be defiant (or “wild” as some like to say), and being slow to warm up does not mean that your child will never take a class or make friends. It just means that you have to parent your child in a way that works for each personality.
My son cries the minute a voice is even slightly elevated, while my daughter is a little less sensitive to loud voices or busy environments. She is more energetic by nature, on the other hand, and needs a lot of exercise and creative outlets. I can never recycle a shipping box, for example, because often a “box” is really a tree house or doll hotel in her mind. They are very different, yet they play well together and are equally sweet.
Parenting the personality type means fewer meltdowns and happier days…and happier days are always a good thing.
Do you parent your children according to their personalities?
Katie is a Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist/Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She has a four year old daughter, three year old son, and a rock and roll husband who makes her life complete. Katie has a parenting advice blog, Practical Parenting, and can also be found on Twitter.