One of the biggest mistakes I ever made as a parent was not preparing myself for something that now seems so obvious. What to do if your child develops a personality that you didn’t expect?
Before our oldest son arrived in our lives at the end of 2011, like a lot of fathers, I created in my mind an ideal. I was having a BOY, after all, and I couldn’t wait to share with him all the amazing and wonderful things I remember experiencing as a kid. Baseball and Star Wars, hiking and exploring, and on and on.
We all do this as parents, I mean, it’s practically unavoidable. This is why someone invented Pinterest, after all, and so in my own imagination I created a vision board.
Where the mistake was made was not anticipating that my son would develop his own unique personality, the quirks starting to emerge about the age of two (and definitely by three). I imagined I would have a Tom Sawyer-like boy, adventurous and sporty, curious and fun. When he was two and three years old, however, he developed a fear instinct that shocked all of us.
For example, this boy loved to watch Thomas & Friends, and then one day, watching an episode that features a small engine teetering on a cliff before he’s rescued, I turned to see Ryan seated on our living room couch with a look on his face like he was having a stroke. “I don’t want to watch this,” he cried when I asked him what was wrong. It was remarkable because he’d seen this very same episode one hundred dozen times and had requested to watch it that very afternoon. What happened?
His flight instinct kicked into overdrive, and it remained solidly deployed in the years afterward. An 18-month-old boy who loved to run back and forth into the ocean the year before had turned into a two-year-old who wanted to go no where near the water. Kiddie rides at the amusement park? Forget it. Take him on a hike in the nearby woods? We made it about 5 minutes in before he begged to go back home.I felt like I was losing a connection with my own son. Click To Tweet
And there was more because he didn’t seem to play act with his toys the way other children do. Take the Thomas & Friends trains, which feature characters with their own set of unique personalities (Thomas is cheeky, James vain, Gordon thunders, and so on as the son goes). Some children will create little stories with their toys, like I did when I took deep dives into my imagination. But our oldest child rarely did that, as if playing pretend was impractical.
I did not react well to this. I would encourage him, urge him, and then throw my hands up in defeat. What boy doesn’t love to play in the ocean or like amusement parks? What boy doesn’t play pretend? He even cowered in fear when we put Winnie The Pooh on TV. My frustration boiled, and I would vent to my wife how I felt like I was losing a relationship with my firstborn child. I understand him.
“If you get me,” she said, “then you’ll get him.”
That was when the light came on. He may eventually incorporate much of my personality into his, but in these early years, in ways I never anticipated, he embraced much of his mother’s personality. My wife doesn’t rush into things without thinking everything through, and she’s full of more common sense than any one else I’ve ever known. She also has a highly developed instinct for impractical uses of her time, meaning she’d rather squeeze every minute of productivity she can rather. That’s her. And I think our child has picked up on some of this.
Ask yourself whether you’re more like one parent or another. Do you think more like one, speak more like one, behave more like one? Chances are you have ingredients from both parents and other influences which have shaped who you are, but it’s also likely that your traits reflect more strongly on one parent over another.
I catch myself talking exactly like my father sometimes, and I’m not conscious of it until after I’ve said whatever I’ve said.
As personality becomes evident in a toddler, you don’t get to choose what character traits the child exhibits because there are so many factors which into shaping who they are and what they like.Just because you have a son doesn't guarantee he's going to be exactly like his father. Click To Tweet
The sooner you accept this, the better off you’re going to be. Certainly, you can by example and word teach values, thinking skills, introduce them to soccer or your favorite cartoon when you grew up, but just because you enjoyed those things as a kid doesn’t mean your child will, too. I learned that the hard way.
I had to get my ideals out of the way so our son could find his own paths, develop his own likes, his own quirks, his own self.
A typical afternoon now will find me shooting a basketball at the hoop standing above our driveway, while our oldest son, now five, rides his bike up and down the street. I’d love for him to take some time to join me, and I’ve invited him many times to do so, but he declines and says he’s rather ride his bike.
I’ll stop shooting hoops after 10 minutes or so, and then watch my son. He pedals furiously up and down the street, puts his head down, intent on zipping by faster and faster, and I feel proud.
I also feel relaxed. I no longer have a sense of disappointment if he or his younger brother decide not to do what I’d like them to do. I’ve found contentment in learning to let go of my ideals and to accept my sons’ personalities as they are. Our five-year-old is through and through his mother’s son, and it’s best for me to let that be. I love her, I love him, and he doesn’t have to be exactly like me or enjoy the things I did as a child. He’s his own person.
Dave is a writer and parent based in Lancaster, Pa. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org