Erica bounces into preschool first thing, already filled with stories about her morning and holding a picture she drew for her teacher. She is a cheerful, chatty, and exuberant three-year-old, ready to play with her friends, work on creative art projects, and exercise her inexhaustible imagination. However, Erica encounters problems while interacting with her friends. In addition to her other qualities, Erica is strong-willed, feisty, bossy, and demanding. She does not hesitate to take another child’s toy or push someone a little too hard. Like all children, there are many facets to her personality and like all of us, she has acquired many of her traits through her genetic inheritance.
It’s All in the Genes
We all inherit a great deal from our parents, yet most parents seem genuinely surprised and bewildered by their child’s temperament, especially when it so closely resembles their own. If I have a perfectionist preschooler in my class, I only have to ask, “So, who’s the perfectionist – you or your spouse?” to see a sheepish grin on the perfectionist parent’s face. The strong, assertive child almost always has at least one parent who is strong and assertive. The whining, complaining child takes after the parent who whines and complains. The difference is that over their lifetime, grown-ups have learned how to disguise these traits and, hopefully, redirect them in positive, productive ways. Children, however, are still captive to their impulses and desires. The child who grabs other children’s toys is acting out a facet of her inborn temperament; she is behaving like her parent, the one who can take charge of the household, run a business, or win at tennis.
An important phase of normal development is called “delay of gratification.” We all have to learn that we can’t always have what we want when we want it. We start infants off by feeding them whenever they are hungry; we try not to make them wait until they are famished and upset. Our parenting instinct tells us to rush to see why our baby is crying and to soothe him until he stops. As parents, we often prefer to give in to our child rather than hear him scream or whine, but the time comes when a child has to wait for something: an ice cream cone, a new toy, a bedtime story, attention from a parent; in fact, he may end up being denied the desired object. Often this is when we begin to see tantrums in our previously compliant child.
Certainly, you give your child a part of yourself when you pass on your genetic makeup, including at least a portion of your temperament. Of course, you don’t intend to give them your “worst” characteristics, but it seems to work that way. What you need to give them, along with that part of yourself, is even more of yourself. You are a role model for your child; only you can demonstrate how to take control of the difficult sides of your temperament and transform them into assets. This requires knowing and accepting yourself so that you can learn to know and accept your child as well. Once you accept your own strengths and weaknesses, you can teach your child how to use hers in positive ways. You can do this by drawing on your own struggles and experiences and talking to your child about how you succeeded in becoming a better person.
When children feel deprived of the attention they need, they will go to any extreme to get it. If your child is behaving in a negative way to get your attention, do not use a “time out” to deprive her even more; do the opposite. Make an unbreakable date with your child. Tell your child that from now on, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening (or at least three times a week) you will spend 30 minutes together, doing whatever your child wants. This should be with just that child; no siblings, no TV, no phones, no other interruptions allowed. It is critical that you tell this to your child and make this commitment very clear, then keep this commitment, barring real emergencies. Such an arrangement has the potential to transform both you and your child. It has worked for a great number of families and it can work for you. What we should really give our kids is ourselves.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.