When my two daughters were born, I met two girls who would one day become successful young women, but via different paths. Before they were even a few days old, each showed a distinct and inborn personality. Gabrielle, the oldest, was a quiet baby and a silent observer of social situations. She tended to think about a situation prior to moving into it. Davita, born three and a half years later, was louder and, once she became mobile, moved more aggressively and physically into social situations. She would think about them after the fact. She would even jump right in to debate something just for the sake of debating aggressively.
You may have sensed that your own child has what I call a "core nature": particular strengths, vulnerabilities, qualities, and tendencies that have been there from day one. Have you ever heard yourself saying, for instance, "Jeffrey just came out of the womb that way," or "Hannah has been focused on being an athlete since she was born"? If so, your instincts are on the money. Recent genetic and brain research supports the theory that certain aspects of people are hard-wired from the start.
Among the inborn traits that we now know to be on each child's genome are:
- personality type
- emotional/relational style
- learning style
- gender differences
- talent set and proclivities
- inherent strengths and weaknesses
- resilience to trauma
That's a profound and useful list. When you know your child down to the core, you are empowered to help guide him through his childhood more organically. You can tailor your discipline style, the school you choose for him, learning methods used, the caregiver you hire, and if and when to schedule his activities, among so much more. In short, you can "nurture the nature" of your child.
What the Research Shows
Over the past 30 years or so, it has been popular to think of children as blank slates to be "filled in." So we've engaged in constant cognitive stimulation, competitive parenting, and multiple activities, and we've followed social trends advice from experts and the media. Unfortunately, this has snared families in a chaotic social system of high pressure overscheduling and under-nurturing, which in turn is causing negative stress in children and adults. In kids, this stress manifests itself as crankiness, sleep disturbance, moodiness, bad eating habits, obesity, disrespect of parents, or dislike of school.
Of course, stimulation, competition, and expert opinion can be right for a given child at a given time. I'm not suggesting you discard parenting techniques that work for you and your child. But research shows those choices really work best when we consider aspects of a child's self. Success for children, we are discovering, comes as much from adapting parenting and education to individual kids as it does from trying to teach all kids the same way. A 6-year-old boy who is a spatial-kinesthetic learner, for instance, is hard-wired for movement. He probably won't respond to "use your words" as well as the verbal-emotive learner happily planted in his seat. One size does not fit all.
Wisdom of Practice
Parents I've worked with grasp the idea of adapting their child-rearing through what I call "wisdom of practice." Through observation, investigation, and trial and error at home, in school, and the community, they have learned to direct their nurturing to the innate assets, proclivities, and specific vulnerabilities of their children. For example, Jennifer's mom realized that her daughter's temperament needed more specific challenge and less blanket praise. "She was getting very entitled and had developed quite an attitude. We realized she needed more criticism from us, fewer things, and more direction."
Similarly, Tim's mom noticed her son's personality is very introverted. "For 12 years he has avoided large groups, but he resents them, too, and he sometimes picks fights for no reason. Once we realized he was having trouble with his own personality, we stopped pushing him toward groups, like football and basketball, and focused on helping him find and keep one best friend."
Parents who focus on the core nature of their children can help them develop many abilities, including:
- seeking out and learning what they need to know
- completing tasks and setting goals
- finding a purpose in life
- de-stressing and recharging when needed
- enjoying play and outdoors time, even as adults
- communicating in relationships
Creating a Profile
You probably already know a lot about your child's nature, but to delve deeper, you can start developing a profile of your child. Ask grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, mentors, and friends to help you assess who your child is. You can even talk to your kids about it. This can be a wonderful bonding experience that children enjoy because they feel they are being respected.
You can begin to make adjustments to your parenting at home, and by extension, directly affect your child's life in the classroom. Start by looking at all the activities in your child's life, including his media consumption, and prepare to make a new plan for how your child will approach learning. Back to school is the perfect time to put this new plan in place.
The first major change you may want to make is to cut back on the number of activities your child participates in. Overstimulation is dangerous to the brain because of the high stress it causes and the related developmental trauma that can occur. Try using a "3 Plus 1" approach for his new schedule: Plan on one cognitive activity (such as school), one social activity (Girl Scouts or another group), one physical activity (soccer? gymnastics?), plus one "bonus" activity that exactly fits your child's budding talent set. For instance, if your child is really good at sports, the "plus one" might be a second sport. If it's music, it might be lessons.
You can support and encourage your child's core nature in numerous ways. For the 4 to 6 year old just entering the world of education, it's good to keep in mind that students develop at their own pace. Some will read well; others will develop more slowly. Try to steer clear of measuring your child against others academically and be patient. Additionally, children this age begin to ask meaningful questions about how they fit into society. Who am I? Am I a good person? Is there a God? Try to provide meaningful answers, while stimulating his mind through books, opportunities for creative play, and educational media.
By the time your child is 7 to 10 years old, her personality is "set." Her school-age brain is a sponge, so provide opportunities to learn new skills, but be cautious about overscheduling. Downtime is crucial for this age group. Let her have at least an hour a day to herself doing "nothing" — reading, playing, listening to music.
During the years 11 through 14, your child is learning to adapt to social and internal stimulation. It is crucial for you to stay strong — and adapt. Stay true to your present value assumptions — and adapt. Help your child learn from each failure and success in all his relationships. Be ready for any question, and answer first with something encouraging and welcoming, like, "That's a good question." Make sure your child knows he can speak openly to you without fear of shame or attack.
We have been parenting on this planet for thousands of years. And for most of them, we trusted our own instincts to guide us through child-rearing. If we can return to our instincts, while considering the best modern research into how our children's brains work, we'll be golden for thousands of years to come.