Each child is born unique, with strengths, weaknesses, talents, and tendencies that make him or her an individual. Because of this uniqueness, different children, even within the same family, respond to the same or similar parenting styles in different ways depending on their personalities and perceptions.
Experts today emphasize the distinctiveness of each child more than ever. According to parenting scholars Craig Hart and Lloyd Newell of Brigham Young University, wise parents realize that every child requires an individualized parenting approach. They “work to adjust, relate to, and rear each child in a manner that is somewhat tempered to individual needs.”2
The principle of individualized parenting is fundamental to all the other parenting principles. For example, the way a parent nurtures and shows love to a particular child should reflect the way they have discovered that child feels loved. The limits, consequences, and degree of freedom parents give a child should depend on the child’s personality and maturity. For example, a defiant child who misbehaves might benefit from firmer punishment while a sensitive child might need only a disapproving word. A daring, strong-willed child usually needs more rules to be kept safe and to learn self-control. A child who already controls his behavior might feel mistrusted if his parents lay down strict rules, leading to a need to rebel.
In the ideal parenting scenario, say Hart and Newell, “each child is guided in a balanced style of connection, regulation, and autonomy that best matches his or her unique set of strengths and weaknesses.”2
Recent research emphasizes the interaction between a child’s nature and her parents’ child-rearing style rather than emphasizing one or the other. In other words, it’s not nature or nurture but nature and nurture--the way they knit together--that determines healthy child outcomes.
By adapting their parenting to each child’s needs, parents can help children develop their natural strengths and talents while downplaying their weaknesses. Finding that fit between a child’s personality and a parent’s child-rearing style can be a challenge. It takes time, patience, and effort. But it is possible. According to Hart and Newell, “By studying their children’s individual temperaments, which stem from each child’s genetic and spiritual natures, parents can create the best environment for [their children’s] optimal growth and development”2 (pp. 117-118).
Parents who adjust their parenting to each child might find themselves wondering about fairness. If one child in a family is punished more firmly than another, for example, won’t that create jealousies and rivalry? The answer is no--if parents teach their children that being fair does not mean giving everyone the same thing. The highest meaning of being fair is to give every person what he or she needs. You can parent fairly without treating every child exactly the same.
Here are ways to practice individualized parenting with your child:
- Observe. Take time to closely watch your children. Look at their faces. Learn their expressions and what they mean. See how they act when they don’t know you’re watching. Being observant can help you identify patterns in your children’s behavior and become more responsive to their needs.
- Spend time with each child one on one. Once a month, plan a special time for just you and your child. With younger children, you could go on a picnic, to a carnival, to the beach or park. With older children, you might go bowling, dancing, hiking, to a concert, a movie, or out to eat. Make it a fun time for just the two of you. If you have a big family, plan dates on a rotating schedule. This can become a wonderful family tradition.
- Avoid comparing one child with another. When a child’s performance falls short of parents’ standards, some parents compare the child to a sibling as a way to motivate him (“John did so well in math. I don’t understand why you’re struggling”). But these kinds of statements are more likely to have a negative effect. Instead, help children come up with ways to improve their own past performance (“Math must be pretty tough for you. What could you do this term to improve?”).
- Help your child identify and build his or her talents. One of the best ways to celebrate a child’s uniqueness is to help her identify her talents, and then use those talents. According to parenting expert Wally Goddard of the University of Arkansas, three principles are especially important for parents to teach children about talents:
- Everyone is good at something. Even things that some people see as faults can be talents. For example, a person who cries easily may be gifted with a sensitive nature. A child who gets into everything may be naturally curious.
- No one has every talent. Children may become discouraged because they don't have talents they see in others. We need to remind them of the talents they do have.
- We can use our talents to help others. When we do this, we feel good about ourselves. A child who is good at math, for example, could help a struggling classmate.
- Emphasize the positive. Learn to see the positive in traits that might also be seen as a problem. For example, instead of telling your child she’s an impulsive risk taker, tell her she’s brave and adventuresome. Instead of hyper, she’s energetic. Instead of bossy, she’s a good leader. The point is not to pretend your child is flawless but to see her good qualities and help her to see them too.
Here are three child-centered activities that can help children discover their talents, taken from Goddard’s program, The Great Self Mystery. Try them with an individual child or as a family.
Activity #1 "The Detective." Imagine yourself as a great detective in search of your own true preferences and personality traits. No clue goes unnoticed by your careful eye. Go through the things that are yours: your book bag, your bedroom, your closet, your school locker--looking for clues. From the items you discover, what can you conclude about the things that interest you? Make a list of the items and what they say about you. For instance, What things are important to you? What do you collect? What are you good at? Who are your heroes? Is your style organized or cluttered? Do you have pictures on the wall?
Keep digging for clues. Even the kind of pencils you use might say something interesting about you. Remember, you're an investigator who is going to solve this mystery!
Activity #2 "My Interest." The library is full of ideas on subjects from birdhouses to metalworking; from insects to art; from Edison to Mozart. If you could spend a whole day in a library learning about anything you wanted, what would you study? You can list more than one thing. Give as much detail as possible. If you could spend an hour with anybody who ever lived, who would it be? Why that person? What would you ask? Whom do you want to be like? Why? What do you admire about that person?
List twenty things you LOVE to do. Items could be singing, looking at magazines, drawing, reading, daydreaming . . . anything you absolutely love to do!
Activity #3 "My Talents." Everyone is good at one or more of the following talents. Which ones are you especially good at? Mark as many as you want.
[Parents should come up with a checklist list that could include some or all of the following talents: Academic (school stuff), productive thinking (new ideas), communicating (sharing with people in talking or writing), forecasting (predicting what will happen), decision-making, planning and designing, implementing (making things happen), human relations (working well with people), discerning opportunities (seeing ways to make changes).
Are there other talents you have that aren't listed? Maybe athletics, creative thinking, music, art, writing, building things? What are your talents?
After completing these activities, have children brainstorm how they can better use their talents to enjoy life and to help others. You might also help children make connections with others in the community who will help them further explore, build, and use their talents.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Goddard, H. W., & Morgan, M. (1995). The great self mystery. Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
- Hart, C. H., Newell, L. D., & Sine, L. L. (2000). Proclamation-based principles of parenting and supportive scholarship. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 100-123). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.
- Plomin, R., & Rutter, M. (1998). Child development, molecular genetics, and what to do with genes once they are found. Child Development, 69, 1223-1242.