In order to parent each of your children the same, you might have to parent them differently.
That is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from my master’s program, and the saying continues to develop meaning for me. I think it is a brilliant little saying. It helps remind us as parents to stop, observe, and recognize what our children need as individuals. How we teach each of our children might be different. The principles might not change, the family goals and values might not change, but how we package up those principles for each child might need to change.
Adapting Parenting to Personality and Capability
We each have different personalities.
Have you ever had somebody handle a sensitive situation in a way that was perfect for you while a friend told you that they hated that same approach? We each have different personalities and preferences, and our children do too. I only have one child right now, but when working as a therapist I recognized how a child’s unique personality required slightly different approaches in therapy.
I’ve also seen this principle growing up. As a shy and somewhat sensitive child I often required different parenting styles than my brother, an impulsive, eager, adrenaline-loving boy. I took everything to heart and I also had a tendency to take things personally, so my parents made sure that I knew I was loved regardless of the mistake I made and that I wasn’t a bad person for it. My parents knew my brother needed to get his energy out and be a little crazy. They learned what was important to say no to, but also to let him have wings to fly as much as possible so he was happy. He also asked more questions and my parents probably had much more straight-forward, blunt and maybe even forceful conversations with him.
I know everyone’s personality is so complex and unique. It is difficult to try to oversimplify life and come up with some examples for this post. The point is, different parenting approaches will affect each child differently because no two children are exactly the same.
Each child learns differently and has unique needs, growth opportunities, and lessons to learn in life.
We each have different capabilities.
Parenting each of our children will also vary due to their individual capabilities. Obviously children have different capabilities based on age. We don’t expect the same type of behavior from a 4 year old that we do from a 12 year old. But, each child’s capabilities can be based on much more than age. For example, my brother has ADHD. This did not give him a free pass or an excuse out of getting good grades, but my parents were understanding when he repeatedly forgot homework. If I had started to repeatedly forget to do my homework, however, it would’ve been a different story.
Sometimes children are going through something difficult, from ADHD to bullying to strained relationships. This can all affect their behavior. Their present abilities can affect how well they follow family rules and values. It can create a parenting dilemma when one child is struggling to meet expectations but the other children are still held accountable to and are following family rules. While I am not advocating that children struggling with challenges are not accountable for the same family rules, I am advocating that there be some flexibility and understanding.
Take a minute and think about what your children are capable of. With the ADHD example, my parents did not yell or ground my brother for forgetting homework. Rather, they continually tried to fine tune a system of reminders and working with teachers because they knew his brain is wired to sometimes forget homework.
If your child is overwhelmed by bullying at school, recognize that it may become a focus for a while in order to help your child get back to a healthy place. Maybe there won’t be enough energy for other objectives if bullying is impacting him/her really hard. With regards to a strained relationship, think about the ultimate objective rather than inflexibly holding to rules.
The ultimate objective is to strengthen the relationship so that children become more receptive to you later. It’s about teaching family values rather than forcing compliance. I’ve seen so many clients who are defiant with their parents, but a little love, understanding and quality time together goes a long way towards later talking about family rules. Check out my post on love, limits, and latitude for a more in-depth explanation of this.
Parenting Differently has the Same Goals in Mind
While each child may require a slightly different parenting approach, your overall parenting goals are likely the same. The ultimate objective of discipline is more than getting children to clean their room every day or get good grades. Really, the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise courteous, kind, moral children. It’s to teach teach them truth and family values. So while we may give punishments and rewards and have discussions differently for our individual children, it is because we believe it’s the most effective way to teach them family values. I realize that parenting is never easy and we make mistakes all the time (at least I do…). But, when we have our family values in mind it’s a lot easier to make hard decisions about parenting.
Brainstorming Questions about How Parenting Approaches Effect Your Individual Children
Try to ponder what impact different parenting tactics might on your children as individuals. There are probably endless questions to ask, because everyone is so unique, but here’s a few to get you started:
How sensitive is your child?
Is your child someone who might need you to be conscious of how discipline is affecting their self-esteem and sense of your love for them? Or, is your child someone who talks about it and moves on? Of course you want to be mindful of building up confidence in every child, but some come programmed with more confidence and an ability to leave the past behind them than other children.
Are you distinguishing between inappropriate behavior and their unique personality traits?
Oftentimes personality traits taken to an extreme create problems. Are you trying to distinguish between their personality and inappropriate behavior? For example, some children are born leaders and like to take charge. We don’t want to discipline that away, for it’s a wonderful trait. But, we want to walk to the subtle line of teaching them not to be bossy. In the above example I mentioned with my brother, my parents gave my impulsive brother room to buy silly stuff at Wal-Mart late at night with his friends and disciplined the unsafe impulsive behaviors. This saved their relationship and his self-esteem. We want to teach our children not to interrupt, but encourage them to keep telling their stories and thoughts. We don’t want to go back to the old adage that children should be seen and not heard. We encourage our children to be creative, and oftentimes that means making messes and mistakes.
Similarly, are we distinguishing between disciplining inappropriate behavior and negative emotions?
It’s healthy and good for children to express their feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment. We want to be careful that we don’t discipline them for being disappointed about not getting a toy. However, we can discipline them for throwing a tantrum about it. The same principle applies with teenagers. We definitely want them to talk to us and tell them how they’re feeling. Oftentimes they will have negative emotions. So, it’s again walking a subtle line in letting them express their emotions to us but not allowing inappropriate verbal yelling.
Are you listening to your children, especially teens?
I recently heard of duct tape parenting. While I haven’t read the book, the presenter who used the phrase said that we need to act like we have duct tape over our mouths. Only when our children feel truly understood can we get important information, like why they’re acting the way they are and how they’re really doing. Then, we can understand how to more effectively parent them.
How many successes has your child had lately?
Try to have 5 positives to 1 negative interaction. This doesn’t mean that you forgo discipline when there have been more negatives than positives. Rather, it means that you especially find positives when lots of discipline is needed.
How does your child best understand lessons you’re trying to teach?
People learn differently. How do each of your children learn concepts you’re trying to teach? Do they really respond to stories and analogies? Do they love it when you use humor? Do they like it best when you’re straightforward and to the point?
How does your child best relate to you?
When do you feel that your child really connects to you? Is it when you’re in the car driving somewhere and the radio is playing? Is it when you go out for a special treat and other siblings aren’t around? Is it when you talk in their bedroom before they go to bed? Is it when you are shooting hoops in the backyard?
Does your child understand why you’re disciplining them?
Of course they do, right?! Right….? Sometimes I think we overestimate how much our children are understanding the lesson we are trying to teach when we parent them. Make sure that your child understands the true goal you’re trying to reach, and not just the punishment they have to live through.
Remember, parenting is a lot more than punishing.
This list is full of questions about things that need correcting, but remember that a lot of parenting isn’t necessarily about correcting behavior. Parenting is also about strengthening the good. It’s about teaching through example. It’s about talking and having conversations. It’s about giving them experiences to help raise them to be who they’re meant to be. That leads me to my last point:
Lastly, but certainly not least, what lessons does your child need to learn to help them be successful through life?
Does your child need to learn to be more assertive and stand up for themselves? Do they need to learn to listen more to others? Be a team player? Have confidence in their contributions and talents? Work hard? Not give up easily? Recognize that they have worth and contributions? Whatever it is, you as a parent are the greatest person there is that can teach these lessons to them.