Practicing Individualized Parenting

Each child is born unique, with strengths, weaknesses, talents, and tendencies that make him or her an individual. Because of this uniqueness, different children, even within the same family, respond to the same or similar parenting styles in different ways depending on their personalities and perceptions.

Experts today emphasize the distinctiveness of each child more than ever. According to parenting scholars Craig Hart and Lloyd Newell of Brigham Young University, wise parents realize that every child requires an individualized parenting approach. They “work to adjust, relate to, and rear each child in a manner that is somewhat tempered to individual needs.”

The principle of individualized parenting is fundamental to all the other parenting principles. For example, the way a parent nurtures and shows love to a particular child should reflect the way they have discovered that child feels loved. The limits, consequences, and degree of freedom parents give a child should depend on the child’s personality and maturity. For example a defiant child who misbehaves might benefit from firmer punishment while a sensitive child might need only a disapproving word. A daring, strong-willed child usually needs more rules to be kept safe and to learn self-control. A child who already controls his behavior might feel mistrusted if his parents lay down strict rules, leading to a need to rebel.

In the ideal parenting scenario, say Hart and Newell, “each child is guided in a balanced style of connection, regulation, and autonomy that best matches his or her unique set of strengths and weaknesses.”

Recent research emphasizes the interaction between a child’s nature and her parents’ child-rearing style rather than emphasizing one or the other. In other words, it’s not nature or nurture but nature and nurture–the way they knit together–that determines healthy child outcomes.

By adapting their parenting to each child’s needs, parents can help children develop their natural strengths and talents while downplaying their weaknesses. Finding that fit between a child’s personality and a parent’s child-rearing style can be a challenge. It takes time, patience, and effort. But it is possible. According to Hart and Newell, “By studying their children’s individual temperaments, which stem from each child’s genetic and spiritual natures, parents can create the best environment for [their children’s] optimal growth and development.”

Parents who adjust their parenting to each child might find themselves wondering about fairness. If one child in a family is punished more firmly than another, for example, won’t that create jealousies and rivalry? The answer is no–if parents teach their children that being fair does not mean giving everyone the same thing. The highest meaning of being fair is to give every person what he or she needs. You can parent fairly without treating every child exactly the same.

Here are ways to practice individualized parenting with your child:

Observe. Take time to closely watch your children. Look at their faces. Learn their expressions and what they mean. See how they act when they don’t know you’re watching. Being observant can help you identify patterns in your children’s behavior and become more responsive to their needs.

Understand children’s development. For example, young children often make faulty assumptions about the way the word works (i.e., the moon is following me while I am traveling in the car). Children at a young age have a strong need to test things out in order to better understand the way the world operates. Such needs often lead to behaviors parents perceive as mischievous, such as pulling out pots and pans to test the various sounds or dumping out a cup of milk to observe the way liquid flows. Instead of becoming angry, parents can choose an appropriate response, such as kindly giving the child a towel to clean up spilled milk or providing a wooden spoon to help the child discover new ways to bang on pots and pans.

Understand and support each child’s temperament. Children vary in terms of their activity level, how they respond emotionally to events, how flexible they are to changes in routines, how outgoing or shy they are, and how well they are able to calm down or stay in control of emotions and behaviors. Parents notice these kinds of differences from the child’s earliest days. Some babies are active, some easy to comfort, some very impulsive, and some easily irritated.

Spend time with each child one on one. Once a month, plan a special time for just you and your child. With younger children you could go on a picnic, to a carnival, to the beach or park. With older children you might go bowling, dancing, hiking, to a concert, a movie, or out to eat. Make it a fun time for just the two of you. If you have a big family, plan dates on a rotating schedule. This can become a wonderful family tradition.

Avoid comparing one child with another. When a child’s performance falls short of parents’ standards, some parents compare the child to a sibling as a way to motivate him (“John did so well in math. I don’t understand why you’re struggling”). But these kinds of statements are more likely to have a negative effect. Instead, help children come up with ways to improve over their own past performance (“Math must be pretty tough for you. What could you do this term to improve?”).

Help your child identify and build his or her talents. Each child has individual talents and abilities, which may or may not include verbal, mathematical, physical, musical or intrapersonal skills, among many others that may not often be classified as talents (for example, She’s a good listener). Parents should help each child understand and appreciate his/her own gifts and should avoid making inappropriate comparisons between children. Jealousy or rivalry usually stem from a child’s fear of losing a parent’s affection or recognition and from wanting to be equally recognized.

According to H. Wallace Goddard, a professor at the University of Arkansas, three principles are especially important for parents to teach children about talents:

Everyone is good at something. Even things that some people see as faults can be talents. For example, a person who cries easily may be gifted with a sensitive nature. A child who gets into everything may be naturally curious.

No one has every talent. Children may become discouraged because they don’t have talents they see in others. We need to remind them of the talents they do have.

We can use our talents to help others. When we do this, we feel good about ourselves. A child who is good at math, for example, could help a struggling classmate.

Emphasize the positive. Learn to see the positive in traits in behavior that might also be seen as a problem. For example, instead of telling your child she’s an impulsive risk taker, tell her she’s brave and adventuresome. Instead of hyper, she’s energetic. Instead of bossy, she’s a good leader. The point is not to pretend your child is flawless but to see her good qualities and help her to see them too.

Conclusion

When trying to optimize our efforts with our children, adjustments may need to be made in the three dimensions of love, limits, and latitude as children grow, especially given their differing personalities. For example, young children need lots of cuddling while older children may be embarrassed by public shows of affection. One child may need tighter limits than another. Some children may appreciate their increased latitude, but need to learn the lesson that if they can’t be trusted, this latitude may decrease for a while until the trust is reestablished. Thus, meeting children’s needs and parenting with these three dimensions in mind is like trying to hit a moving target-an amazing effort is required to keep up with the challenges of good parenting!

For Further Reading:

Between Parent and Child
by Haim Ginnott

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
by John Gottman

Additional Websites

Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Website – Parenting Journey
http://www.arfamilies.org/family_life/parenting/default.htm