Kids aren’t cut from the same cloth even when they share DNA. Helping them fulfill their promise means adapting to match their needs.
The eldest of my children, my son, had a temper when he was born. If you took more than 15 seconds to plug a bottle into his month at the tender age of three months, his face turned into a round, beefsteak tomato and tears formed in his eyes. His whole body would shake in anticipation of his meal, yet he was frustrated that nothing he could do would speed the process. When he wanted a toy, to crawl, to run, he remained fixated that goal. There was only one way to carry on with life, his way. A child this passionate loves hard and with a lot of loyalty.
My middle, another son, has a genial personality, potty-trained himself, assesses fairness in his disciplines, disputes and bargains his way into determining his fate. He was a chubby, bubbly kid, always happy to see you, never wanting to leave my side. He is sensitive toward injustices in others, yet sneaky, don’t let his smile fool you. I have been duped by him on many occasions. And he is funny, while remaining kind.
My daughter, the baby, is very roll-with-the-punches, yet trample all the odds. She is a serious fighter and will protest loudly if she is not heard in an argument, but there are many things about life she cherishes and when she makes up her mind to love, care, nurture, it’s game on. Family moves her and she is mature beyond her years. If she does something wrong, you needn’t say much, because she will beat you to the punch and even suggest a good recompense.
Because my children are vastly different individuals, I have learned to parent them differently. The eldest, Josh, flirting with adulthood and relishing in the full potential of his life, does not want advice from anyone. He will give what is expected, if he stays on track. When he gets derailed it’s because there are a lot of options in young adulthood, and little developed confidence in his decision-making skills. So, a distraction might seem like an actual choice. He is learning. By trial and error, he consistently moves a step ahead. I was very much the same way and can now understand the pain my poor mother endured.
When Josh was a teenager, he hated chores, and I hated yelling at him about it, although I felt demeaned because I worked all day and then had to come home to his snarling about loading the dishwasher. It pissed me off and so I yelled anyway. Josh hates discourse. So do I, but we were falling into that dynamic because for a lot of his life yelling is how I got him to do what I needed him to do. It wasn’t even the dishes so much I was squawking about. It was what he wasn’t showing in respect and volunteering a hand; it was on the level of giving up your seat on the bus to a pregnant woman. If Josh didn’t do the dishes, he would never offer the seat. So I screamed, and when he did the dishes, they were done in a rush, or with a terrible attitude, and again we’d exit the scene, both ticked. Yelling wasn’t doing a damn thing, but making it all worse.
I stopped fighting Josh. I did the dishes and let him do what he wanted, which a lot of the time was chill and play video games. I didn’t bother him about responsibilities and after about a year of this building up in me, it was time for things to get serious. My caterwauling hadn’t worked, my compliance wasn’t doing him any favors and I had stored up a ton of resentment.
Natural consequences were a start. If he made a promise to me, I unemotionally held him to it. If he said he would pay a certain amount toward food or rent, I didn’t let it go, even though I wanted to. Isn’t that every parent’s inclination? To let the responsibilities of their children slide so they will be happy? But it’s not good for them, nor does it result in true happiness.
It doesn’t teach them to keep their word, and there is no one else out there charged with addressing life lessons with your child. No one else will take the time to teach them when they are adults, because everyone around them will assume they know how to clean a toilet, how to balance a bank account, how to address a letter, or make macaroni and cheese. Their best friend won’t take on your role because no one will ever care as much as a kid’s folks.
I found out when Josh is confronted with the natural consequences of his own decisions, he learns. Oh gosh, it is painful to watch sometimes, but learning takes him higher and gets him where he needs to be, to be happy in life, even if he travels in a series of legs versus transatlantic flights.
Colton, on the other hand, is a little of that and a lot of leeway. With two learning disorders and a screaming anxiety disorder that interferes with him attending school and work. Colton is a rework in progress nearly every week.
We start from scratch and enter in new appointments into our smartphones and the giant calendar on the fridge and the fun mom calendar (complete with stickers), these appointments taking the place of the old ones he missed because of illness. Diagnosed this year with abdominal migraines, the worst disease on the planet, which leaves him retching over the toilet multiple times in as many hours, a condition, which sometimes precedes the development of migraines, Colton is laid flat when it hits, his color pale against a paste paint swatch. He needs to manage stress, exposure to illness, and fatigue. On a handful of medications daily, sometimes the goals Colton sets for himself don’t get accomplished.
We could not parent him the way we do Josh, because there are outside circumstances that prevent Colton from adhering to his expected schedule. He is picked up and brushed off often, recharged and sent on his way, until the next time, and Colton knows he must try to meet us halfway. Our reward in parenting Colton this way? He knows we are unfailing, that we are on his team 100%.
Bright, beautiful Lauren is healthy, strong, determined, brave, unflappable, resolute and rational (most of the time — she is only 15). She attacks chores and homework, is happiest when in the midst of love and attention from us. She needs to snuggle with her black lab, Buddy at night, because she loves company. She is fearless and will make mistakes that she immediately calls herself on. And she requires minor child wrangling. Her mind snaps into place, remembering every appointment she (and anyone else) has, she always knows where she needs to be.
She defends her right to be social and to be a kid if she feels chores are overwhelming. When she screws up, it is often a misunderstanding, never outright defiance, and she will come to us with a peace offering and apologies. I was hard on her only a few times and I remember understanding how breakable she was, because she balances taut, suspended on the tightrope of her life. I hope she relaxes and learns it’s okay to fail periodically. She knows what she wants to be when she grows up already and needs everyone around her to get along.
We speak very little of what Lauren has done wrong when she does it because she knows, her presentation explicitly describes facts and circumstances, even the punishments she suggests are fair as they still deprive her of some sort of privilege. I am sure Lauren feels heard and that her input is valued, that she knows we love having her around.
I could never parent my children the same way, and I wonder how others do. As a parent, I have to be on alert to change my tone of voice, how I talk to each child, and what I am trying to get across. Just as children learn differently, they also responded to communication differently, to incentives, reassurances, and disciplines. We examine each event of their lives, requiring planning and correction on a one-off basis, and think very critically before responding to their needs.
A good marker for parents with younger children is to observe them in the preschool phase. This is said to be what you can expect when your children are teenagers. So what works for them now, with a few adjustments, may also work in the future. I remember their inherent personalities and what they responded to way back in the day, when scuffles over Teddy Grahams and Legos were predominant.
In the end, we’re all aiming for happy, productive children who will give back to the world and make it better than they found it. As we inch closer to that destination with each of them, the realization parenthood is one helluva a trip makes us thankful for each crazy moment and crazy kid.