Loving the Child You Have

With so much research supporting inborn temperament, the days of believing children are born as “blank slates” are long gone. Yet parents still struggle with the underlying belief that our children’s emotions, intelligence, behavior, preferences, etc. are all products of our parenting and fully under our control. Thus, we often find ourselves putting greater effort into changing characteristics we dislike in our children than into appreciating them as unique individuals. The reality, that each child enters the world with a blueprint from which all characteristics must stem, is both freeing and confining—freeing in that our parenting is not wholly responsible for our children’s every flaw and confining in that we can only work with what we have.

Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. and coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, says “one of the most beautiful ways of expressing love for a child is learning to love that child—not the child you wish you had” (Nelson, Erwin, & Duffy, 2007, p. 117). So how do we push aside our deep-rooted expectations and achieve such an expression of love? The following suggestions provide a solid start.

Keep perspective

Every one of us has undesirable traits—stubbornness, defensiveness, impatience, negativity, over-sensitivity, under-sensitivity—traits we may spend a lifetime working on and never quite overcome. No matter how perfect our parenting, our children are human and come into this world with certain challenges they will continue to face for life just like the rest of us.

Be realistic

In How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, child and family therapist Dr. H. Norman Wright states that “every child is predisposed toward certain personality characteristics” (Wright, 2004, p. 9). Making children who are genetically prone to certain characteristics suppress and replace them is somewhat like making children destined for shortness tall. You can raise them on whole foods and exercise, but they will never reach six feet. That’s not to say we shouldn’t provide emotional sustenance to help hesitant children experience adventure or negative children see the positive, but we must recognize that each child starts from a different place and with different wiring.

Remember self-esteem

If we put incredible energy into changing our children’s natural temperaments, their temperaments inevitably remain, but their self-esteem suffers as they watch us try hard to change them. Sharon Smith says her five-year-old daughter Marie complains daily of the slightest bump or bruise despite Sharon’s attempts to downplay their significance. Since this attention to minor details appears to be part of Marie’s temperament, efforts to change it likely leave her feeling misunderstood or weak. Accepting such traits as differences in personality, rather than as flaws, reduces damage to self-esteem. But take heart, most “weaknesses” have strengths on the flip-side, and the child who obsesses over the smallest detail today may be the brain surgeon of tomorrow.

Avoid comparisons

Thoughts like, “Whenever Jesse fails, he just works that much harder,” or “When I was a kid, I ate whatever was on my plate without complaining,” can hinder perspective-taking. Each set of genes and upbringing results in different strengths and weaknesses. Leadership expert Donna Thomas-Rodgers tried to impose who she was on her daughter for years before recognizing that her daughter entered this world with a personality nothing like her own. Once she accepted and nurtured her daughter’s differences, their arguments virtually disappeared and the two at last grew very close (and needless to say, enjoyed each other far more!)

Acknowledge development

Most of us avoid reprimanding our young children for not performing cognitively beyond their years, yet may be quick to judge them for developmentally normal behavior such as failing to share a prized possession. (By the way, how often do we share our prized possessions?) Unfortunately, the latter is at least as damaging, and while reading and math are relatively black and white, behavior has incredibly complex intricacies even adults never fully master. Learning that letters make certain sounds is far simpler, for example, than learning that it’s okay to spend considerable energy practicing to defeat others in soccer, but not to reveal your honest feelings about winning in their presence.

Value differences

We all know to value diversity in others or in characteristics our children possess that we admire. But what about those talents or interests that just aren’t particularly important to us? What if we’re a family who values academics and one of our children pursues gardening? Judy Davids said her son Dylan developed a passion for video games and Pokemon cards, a distress to his father who preferred “real” sports. Though Judy did not understand his enthusiasm, she recognized it and enrolled him in animation classes. At age 17, Dylan got accepted into two universities with game design programs. His parents’ acceptance allowed him to use the potent combination of passion and talent to excel in a career he loves.

Focus on the positive

Everywhere, we hear advice to catch our children behaving and to acknowledge them for it. Of course this is great advice, but can we take it a step further? Instead of looking for the positive as another means of improving our children, can we look for the positive to improve our view of them? When we focus on positives, we find that what we perceive as negative matters to us far less and often fades away.

Do unto others…

Our children do not need parents who find and improve upon their every “flaw,” but who celebrate and foster their unique personalities and love them as they are. If our message gets through, they will learn from our example and accept others. And if we're lucky, they might even grow up Loving the Parents They Have.

Laurie Davala is a Certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, Learning Specialist, and mother of two teenagers.

Nelsen, Jane, Ed.D, Erwin, Cheryl, M.A., & Duffy, Roslyn Ann (2007). Positive Discipline for Preschoolers: For Their Early Years—Raising Children Who Are Responsible, Respectful, and Resourceful (3rd ed). New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Wright, Norman H. (2004). How to Talk So Your Kids will Listen. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

by Laurie Davala