Babies are born with an innate personality that shapes how they learn, love and experience new people and new situations. As they grow, these personalities shape how each new developmental stage and skill emerges: for example, mealtimes, bedtime, starting new classes or school, and potty training. Children discover their unique place in the world while parents are continually adapting what works best for each child.
Parents have two important tasks: to help each child understand “who they are” and to help each child grow from “where they are”. When a parent connects to a child’s innate style and strengths, parents are working with the child’s natural tendencies. Parents and children experience far less frustration while children gain confidence being “themselves”.
A growing field of science writers and researchers describe the remarkable abilities of babies to steer and shape learning. From language learning to food preferences, babies enter the world ready to thrive. Infants as young as 6 months bring notions of numeracy and morality to their experiences of the world and 19 month old toddlers seem to have innate criteria of fairness and justice. Children are not blank slates to be molded any which way.
The first studies on a child’s innate temperament, decades ago, showed that interaction styles and preferences exist in the first 24 hours of life and continue through adulthood. Easy, slow-to-warm-up and difficult temperament styles (and combinations of the three) are based on these 9 characteristics from Chess & Thomas’ classic research:
1. activity level
Children can use their strengths to build skills in other areas – like an active child who can contain her energy until her seat belt is released but better give her lots of room to dance and jump when it does. Pushing a watchful child into a rambunctious group will only encourage him to cling tighter. And being flexible about bedtime may not have serious consequences for an easy child but it could throw off a slow-to-warm-up child for a week just as being inflexible with intense child might lengthen a disruption into hours instead of resolving it in minutes. It may require time-consuming trial-and-error, but the first few years are the time when parents learn how their children are made.
Over time, parents learn to adapt to a child’s best ability to hear, see, feel and understand. Here are a few of the ways that parents tailor their message and actions to the child’s innate strengths:
• Comfort: Active children calm down differently than more watchful children. Touch, music, quiet, routines, or imagination stories – parents are constantly re-evaluating the perfect strategy as well as the timing and the window of opportunity. Learning how calm and be calmed is critical to self management and stress management.
• Encouragement: Some children respond well to cheer leaders while others relish the time and space to discover the mysteries of the world on their own. Motivation is personal as children learn what pleases others, what pleases themselves and the consequences of their choices.
• Communication: Every parent knows when they are being heard and when they are talking to air. Patient conversation works sometimes. Other times, “the look” is clear and efficient. Yet other times, your child needs lap time to help block out overwhelming stimulation including her own emotional state before she can really hear your message.
• Teaching: Consider whether the well-known Chinese proverb actually fits your child: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Different situations may in fact inspire your child differently. Attention to how your child learns maximizes long-term learning. Some children sing their way to learning while others dance and hop. Freedom to learn in a variety of ways is essential in early childhood so that your child can learn adapt to school protocol later.
• Discipline: The true wisdom of discipline must be customized to fit the child and the situation. So many options – so little time, especially when parents are pulling their hair out! From gentle verbal reminders to stern “I mean it now” directives, from disapproving time-outs to sympathetic hugs, from the “look” to silence – effective discipline is action-oriented, change-oriented communication. It’s best to think about what really works before and after challenging moments.
• Expectations: Appropriate expectations are the most nuanced of all parenting: not too high – not too low. Some children underestimate their abilities and need encouragement, sometimes even a loving push. Others will retreat if pushed. Some children take baby steps; some jump in the deep end and swim; a few try to fly off rooftops without wings.
Every child needs something different. When you realize how parenting adapts to each parent and each child, comparisons no longer apply, child-to-child or family-to-family. All children need grown-ups to meet them where they are and help take them to places never seen before.