In bygone days, parents (especially mothers) were thought to be the cause of everything children did – or didn’t do. Although it often doesn’t seem so, the era of blame mom is in the past. Instead, we have come to understand much more about the characteristics and abilities children arrive with in this world, and the role they play in the way parents and children interact with each other.
A psychiatrist who studied children talked about seeing differences in newborn babies in hospital nurseries – in those good old days when moms and babies stayed in the hospital longer than overnight. I remember his talking about the “executive baby” who already had the nurses doing her bidding. Mothers themselves talk about differences even between their own children: an “easy” baby, a “demanding” baby, an “active” baby, among other descriptions.
Years ago, while in training, a supervisor taught me about the effect children’s personalities have on their parents. She was a lively, outgoing person and said that if her daughter had been a quiet, inner-directed child it would have driven her crazy. It would have seemed to her that something was wrong with her child.
Children seem to be born with certain distinctive temperaments, or behavior styles which emerge in various ways early in life. Researchers have been interested in studying whether these characteristic carry over into adult life. There is some evidence that some of these differences are due to heredity. Parents often report grandparents telling them they were “just like that” when they were children.
Perhaps more interesting is the question of how these innate characteristics develop over time into distinctive individual personalities. This is where all that has been learned about development in recent years can give us some clues. We know, for example, that parents are not simply writing on a blank slate, as was once thought. Children are partners in their own development. Their native endowments elicit from parents and others certain responses. Their cries of hunger or pain bring the attention they need. Their smiles and other emerging skills cause others to react with pleasure and engage with them socially.
So as I learned from that supervisor long ago, it isn’t only that children react to their parent, it is also that parents react to their children. This interaction between them is possibly more significant than either of their personalities individually; yet their individual personalities have a big impact on the way they interact with each other. Parents react to their children, and children in turn react to their parents’ reaction.
In a way this happens in all relationships and can have an impact on how they develop. For example, in a disagreement between friends, one person may like to clear the air by expressing feelings. The other person may keep things inside and withdraw. One person’s insistence on airing the matter may cause the other to withdraw even further. This withdrawal, in turn, may invite anger or criticism; and each misunderstanding of the other may lead to a breakdown in the relationship.
In the case of parents and their children, there can also be a mismatch of personality, or behavioral styles. Parents often talk about children pushing their buttons. Sometimes this simply refers to children carrying things too far and provoking their parents. But in other situations, it may reflect an aspect of a child’s behavior that is particularly intolerable to his parent, whereas it might not have the same effect on someone else.
An example might be outgoing and socially involved parents with a slow to warm up child who becomes clingy in social situations. For such parents it might be particularly difficult to accept or tolerate their child’s different personal style, and the constant repetition of a critical response or lack of acceptance of who their child is may actually reinforce the very behavior that upsets them. Children are aware when they are not meeting their parents’ expectations, and sensitive to the feeling that they are failing in some way.
When a child begins to move out into a larger world, this behavioral style may be repeated with others, perhaps leading to his being excluded by peers, or fading into the background in school. This serves to further reinforce feelings of failure, or lack of confidence, and contributes to the ongoing development of a particular behavioral style. Parents worry about this and it may lead them to try even harder to induce their child to behave differently.
Understanding how possible differences in style or temperament between our child and ourselves influence our child’s development, can be useful in thinking about conflicts that may be developing in the relationship. We need to consider whether a child’s behavior we are trying to change or that irritates us, is unacceptable in a larger sense, or simply runs counter to our own personality style. If we can accept the differences between us we can play an important role in helping a child be successful within his own style of behavior.
The saying is that “opposites attract”. But in the case of parents and children, opposites can distract from the positive impact we are capable of having on our child’s development.