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posted: 5/2/2013 10:37 AM

Unique children require unique approaches to parenting

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At 2 years of age, our youngest son had mastered an incredible vocabulary. Unfortunately, none of it is in any language we knew. With one exception: the word "no."

In fact, he had practiced "no" so often that he flourished it like a thespian, with a variety of intonations and emphases according to the specific situation.

Alex was also at that stage where it was important for him to have what he wanted when he wanted it. If we failed to clearly understand his request, or decided in our parental wisdom that it should not be granted, he was quick and vehement in his protest.

Now, this is nothing like what we experienced with our oldest. Amy was one of those laid-back toddlers who walked through the world with a smile on her face and a cheerful word on her lips. She tried "no" a few times, decided it was not all that important, and moved on to other pursuits.

Her "terrible 2s" lasted through one or two real temper tantrums; then these too were discarded as not worth the effort. It was as if she learned early on that agreeable people usually get more of what they want anyway.

Two children. Two radically different personalities. And two varieties of parenting required in response.

Perhaps one of the most difficult lessons to learn as parents is just how unique each of our children really is. Certainly children from the same family share many common personality characteristics, ideas, habits, etc. But the differences among such children far outweigh the similarities.

Some of these differences can be attributed to gender (boys and girls are not the same), birth order (oldest, middle, youngest child), different experiences with other children or in school, etc. And some personality characteristics we just seem to be born with. But whatever the origins of our children's differences, as parents we must deal with them.

Now, there are three pitfalls we often fall into. First, we sometimes try to force all our children into the same mold, establishing one style of parenting (expectations, rules, punishments, rewards) and insisting they all adapt to it.

Second, we can develop a unique approach to each child, but subtly (or not so subtly), communicate to them that some children are better than others. "If you could just be like your sister " can leave our children feeling that there is something wrong with them.

Third, we can give up all together, parenting randomly, inconsistently and confusingly. When this happens our children will tend to protest by accentuating just those characteristics and behaviors that are most difficult for us to deal with.

So how do we deal with the different parenting needs of each of our children?

It's not easy, but there is a way.

• We need to recognize that each of our children is unique, and value and affirm that uniqueness. A strong-willed child may be a future political leader. A quiet, sensitive child is perhaps a future psychologist. A caring, affectionate child may be an exceptional parent in the making. Each of our children is special, and needs to be told so.

• We want to develop general guidelines that fit our best beliefs and thoughts about parenting. Remembering that our job as parents is to teach children that they are lovable and capable (i.e. how to get along in the world of relationships and the world of work), we need to tailor our parenting to accomplish these tasks.

• We adjust these general guidelines to fit each child. One child needs more help with his homework than another. Our daughter is more responsible with her household tasks and needs less reminding than our son. Our oldest son needs a pat on the back whenever he accomplishes something; our middle son prefers to go it alone. Our oldest daughter was ready to take the car out on her own at age 16; we let our youngest daughter try, but she did not follow our rules and lost the privilege.

Note: Even when we adjust our guidelines, we at least need to give each child a chance. We cannot, for example, just assume that our absent-minded son cannot take care of the dog he is begging for and refuse his request outright. We need to find some way to give him a chance and help him learn from his experience.

You get the idea. Loving, affirming, fair, consistent, sensitive, flexible -- our parenting must be all of this and more.

To put it simply, unique children require unique parenting.

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