She is a four-year-old free spirit who never met a stranger.
Her name is Penny.
And her shy mother is the exact flip side of that shiny coin.
“She is so the social butterfly,” says Penny’s mother, Bonna. “I never have been and never will be.”
The two are lookalikes, with their fair skin and strawberry locks, but they are polar opposites in terms of personality. “My husband and I joke about how when she gets older she will be everything I wasn’t: popular, bubbly and probably a cheerleader type.”
If you’re like Bonna, raising a child so different from you can present some challenges. When you don’t have a “mini me” for a son or daughter, how can you still develop a meaningful connection?
Dive into their world
As parents, it’s natural to want to share our interests with our kids – and hope they feel the same spark. When we don’t give them space to develop their own passions however, an unnecessary divide can develop. “One thing I see is parents trying to push kids into their own interests,” says Kristi Turner, MA, LMHC, owner of Hamilton Professional Counseling in Noblesville. “I always encourage you to dive into what your kids are into and let them be the experts. Get out of your head, and into the kid’s head.”
Turner speaks from personal experience with her own 11-year-old son, who is in many ways her opposite. Recently he asked her to play Minecraft with him. “It was super important to him, so I carved out an hour,” she recalls. “He had a blast because I wasn’t very good at it, and he was. It’s a confidence boost for him to be the expert.”
Likewise, Bonna has found it rewarding to embrace her daughter’s differences rather than fighting them. “Your child doesn’t have to be your clone. Don’t try to restrain them from their natural instincts.”
Find (or create) common ground
Polar opposites can usually find some way to enjoy their time together, even if they approach it from different angles.
Molly, a mom of two from Carmel, discovered a fun way to bond with her sports-loving 13-year-old son, without feigning interest in athletic events. The two went on a four-hour kayaking trip together which appealed to both of them. Although Molly says, “There were times on the trip when he paddled way ahead of me, and other times when he wanted to connect our kayaks together and float in tandem downstream.”
She and her husband are also different from their daughter, who “lives for musical theatre, drama and singing, when neither of us ever set foot on stage.” Still, they find common ground in reading books together. “Talking about the characters in books and how they are feeling is a safe way for her to express her thoughts and ask me questions,” says Molly.
Understand their communication style
Online tools and books can also help you uncover better ways to communicate and relate to your children. For example, The Five Love Languages system, developed by Gary Chapman, offers free online tests for children of different ages that reveal their preferred ways of receiving love: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time or physical touch. (www.5lovelanguages.com)
It also helps to do your own investigating about how your child prefers you interact with them, says Turner, as long as you keep the tone light and casual. “Talk to your kids, and ask, ‘Hey, what kind of stuff do I do that makes you happy, and makes you feel good? What’s your favorite thing that we have done lately?’ It really helps to open up that dialogue.”
See the rewards
Sometimes, differences between you and your child can help you grow in ways you never expected. As Bonna says about her extroverted daughter, “She in some ways has pulled me out of my comfort zone by giving me more opportunities to be social.” Bonna appreciates the way Penny provides instant connections to other people. “I am still quite a loner, but I do talk to more people. Sometimes I just love to stand back and watch her. I encourage it, because I wish I were more like her.”
Bonding with a child who is your opposite takes conscious effort, and that alone may help you be more mindful of your unique parenting journey. Molly was struck by something during that kayaking trip with her son. “I followed his lead, noticing a pattern of paddling ahead towards independence and hanging back for connectedness,” she recalls. “That is about the best metaphor for parenting that I know.”