Differences Within Differences

In thinking about differences between children it is striking to become aware that even among children who seem different from their group, they can differ from each other in the way they are different. Two children who are different from the group may also be different from each other.

It was interesting to become aware of this during an observation of a group of preschool children as they moved through various activities that included music, movement and art projects. Two children who clearly were participants in the various activities drew attention because of the nature of their participation, both different in contrast to the group yet also different from each other.

Both children were girls and although there was a significant difference in their ages, the differences between them seemed more related to the question of personality than to developmental stages. A broadly descriptive though limited picture might be that one girl was more inner directed, the other more outer directed.

How was this expressed? One child seemed self-contained, focused on her own performance or achievement within the activity. The other child showed an ongoing need or wish for interaction – especially with a teacher. She did not seem to seek out a particular teacher but rather the interest or attention of one of the adults.

The self-contained child was watchful, aware of the behavior of others but seemingly apart even while participating. The other child would break away from an activity when unable to achieve the individual interaction she was seeking. Her behavior was not provocative but noticeable.

The most striking difference was during the art project when the two girls were so different from each other while both stood out in the group because of the nature and quality of their work. The project at hand was a montage like painting – that is the children had individual cups of paint but also an assortment of materials to use on their painting such as feathers or cut-outs of various kinds.

The work of both girls was noticeable for its originality and creativity but the way they worked was noticeably different. The child I call “inner-directed” was totally absorbed in what she was doing, working with great intensity and focus. Well after other children had finished their work and left the art project, this child continued with her own work seemingly unaware that she was working alone at the table.

The other child succeeded in capturing the interest of one of the teachers whom she sat next to and with whom she interacted the entire time she worked on her project. She elicited comments about her choices in the use of material and seemed not to be seeking approval but rather companionship. She did not linger over her work and seemed to be clear about when she was finished.

The finished work of both girls stood out and appeared to reflect the differences in their behavior – or personalities? The child who seemed always somewhat apart from the group produced a work with a definite style of form and dramatic, intense color. It drew the eye of the beholder. The other girl’s work was a catchy collection of color and shapes, appealing, though without clear form  projecting creativity in its composition.

What does this tell us about differences in children? A primary thing of interest is the consistency of a mode of behavior through different situations and activities. At times this has been called temperament, or personality. This sense of coherence seems to tell us who this child is.

When we seek to understand our own child’s behavior in a particular context, it is this knowledge of who this child is that can be most helpful – helpful in understanding differences from others and in offering support as parents.