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Your Child, Your Self

Connecting with a kid who's your polar opposite is easier than you think.

By Leslie Pepper

Polar Opposites

My 7-year-old daughter is the spitting image of me. Blue eyes, curly brown hair, fair skin. But that's where our similarities end. Maddie thinks a meal isn't complete without meat, but I'm a vegetarian. She's naturally drawn to people, whereas I'm a bit of a recluse. Her flashy outfits totally overshadow my muted neutrals. I often say that if she didn't have my impossible-to-tame ringlets, I'd swear she wasn't mine. (And when she struts around in a pink shirt and orange pants, I'm not exactly begging for mother-daughter recognition.)

In truth, though I'm generally delighted to be the mom of such a spitfire, our differences sometimes frustrate me. I never assumed or expected my daughter would be my clone, but I hardly envisioned a polar opposite either. It turns out, I'm not alone. "Parents often overestimate the amount of influence they'll have in terms of shaping their kid's personality," says Victoria Manion Fleming, PhD, a marriage and family therapist at North Shore Wellness Services in Northbrook, Illinois. "It can be a tremendous shock to realize our children aren't how -- or who -- we expected them to be."

Expectations vs. Reality

If you're a girlie girl, chances are you've been picturing weekly mother-daughter mall excursions followed by mani-pedis. Or if you're a bookworm, perhaps you've envisioned long talks about Shakespeare plays with your high-school-age son. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all have at least some expectations that our child will mirror ourselves.

But as our children grow and their personalities emerge, reality often diverges from fantasy. "We think our kid is going to be an extension of ourselves, but at some point he or she becomes a unique person with a separate view of the world," says Michael Bradley, EdD, a psychologist for teens and families in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, and author of Heart and Soul of the Next Generation (Harbor Press). And when those dreams are dashed, it can be disconcerting.

Dealing with Disappointment

When Jennifer Twiggs, 43, of Charlotte, North Carolina, was a kid, she went out for every sport. "If there wasn't a girls' team, I would just play on the boys'," she says. Jennifer couldn't hide her dismay when her 14-year-old daughter, Julianna, chose cheerleading. "I'm trying to be supportive. I went to the first game to watch her cheer -- but it's really hard for me to be cool about her jumping around behind the boys in a tiny outfit."

According to Fleming, it's good to own up to your emotions. "When you're in touch with how you're feeling, you won't just react from the gut," she says. In other words, you'll be able to deal logically, instead of emotionally. That helps you figure out what's behind the misgivings. And if you're afraid you can't bond, fear not. "I don't know any parents who can't relate to their kid on some level," says Geraldine Kerr, a marriage and family therapist in Morristown, New Jersey. "It's really a matter of being willing to connect where the child wants to," she says. In fact, your son's different interests may give you new options for conversation. He loves soccer and you're clueless about the game? Go to a match and pay attention while he gives you a play-by-play. In other words, spend time in his world and let him show you the lay of the land.

Just keep in mind, you may end up feeling inadequate if your daughter's a science whiz and your knowledge of Saturn stops at "midsize sedan." For the first time, you're no longer omniscient, and it's unnerving to feel you don't possess the tools to help your child. "We all need to feel competent in our jobs, so this sets off self-esteem issues in many parents," says Fleming. But you can still help your daughter with her schoolwork by showing her how to look up information on the Web -- you're providing parental supervision and learning right alongside her. Sit and talk with her as she works through her homework. You'll get a sense of what she's good at, and by explaining it to you, she'll get a better grasp on the concepts.

When You Clash

If I'm being honest, my ever-so-sociable daughter can be exhausting. She always wants to do things together, and I sometimes find myself about to snap, "Can't you read a book by yourself?" Admittedly, I don't think experts would agree that's the best approach. Better, says Bradley, would be what he calls a compliment-and-compromise strategy: Tell her you love spending time with her, then ask if she can occupy herself quietly for 20 minutes before you do something fun together.

The Upshot of Differences

Contrasts in personalities can be a great asset. "As a therapist, I worry about the kid who's exactly like his mom or dad," says Bradley. "I start to wonder, Is this for real? Or is he doing things just for parental approval?" Bradley is also suspicious of the overly accommodating child. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to please others, but when that desire causes a kid to be something other than what he truly is, he can become depressed and anxious, and act out in other ways," he says.

In the best-case scenario kids can say and do things on their own, even when those things are the opposite of what you say and do. A child who can respectfully disagree with an adult is creating his own distinct identity, an asset when he must confront tough decisions in the future. If he's resolute enough to keep his sense of self intact when he's with you, he'll probably be able to stand up to his peers as well. So if his buddies are telling him that drugs are cool, he'll likely make his own choice. "Children with strong identities have higher self-esteem, which greatly reduces the lure of dangerous behaviors," says Bradley. "These types of kids tell me that drugs are a waste of time." You can also revel in knowing that this child will reliably tell you the truth. If your kid feels powerful enough to say, 'Our religion is stupid,' you can usually believe him when he tells you he's not taking drugs, according to Bradley.

As for me, I'm still baffled by my daughter's flamboyance, but I'm also impressed with how she can make friends with just about anyone. Watching her through the years, I've learned a thing or two. The other day I walked into a class at my gym and actually struck up a conversation with someone I didn't know. My new friend and I made a lunch date for next week...but I highly doubt I will be wearing orange pants.

Irreconcilable Differences

When you have a kid whose beliefs differ from yours, how do you draw the line between what's just unfamiliar and what's unacceptable?

Experts advise asking yourself: Are my child's activities hurting him or others? Is this an expression of individuality or does it truly reflect risky behavior? If your son dyed his hair purple but he's still bringing home good grades and showing up for dinner every night, he's probably okay. The eggplant-colored locks may be keeping you up at night, but if he's fulfilling his responsibilities, it's likely best to look the other way, says adolescent psychologist Alec L. Miller, PsyD, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York.

If his actions violate your morals, ethics, and values, ask him to articulate his rationale. For instance, if he says he wants to join a racist group because it offers unconditional acceptance, try to help him find another place where he can feel that sense of belonging. At some point you may need to exert control -- by not letting him drive your car to rallies, say -- without demanding he adhere to your beliefs. "Values that are forced on a child are typically rejected, while those that are quietly modeled are usually freely adopted," says Bradley. If you've carefully chosen your battles thus far, eventually your child will realize that this is really important to you and come around.

Sibling Revelry

When one kid is a carbon copy of you and another is the opposite, how do you keep from favoring the mini-me?

Resist the temptation to pretend that there isn't any difference between the children, says New York City adolescent psychologist Alec L. Miller. "Your kids are too smart for that, and hiding your feelings sends the message that being different is not okay."

Be as nonjudgmental, supportive, and accepting as possible, says Miller. There's no reason to feel guilty for enjoying the time you spend with your parallel child -- so long as you schedule plenty of togetherness with the kid who's different too. And instead of just grinning and bearing it, be a good sport and actively find some enjoyment in it. "I don't know of any secret recipe other than telling yourself that this is giving your child pleasure, which should make you happy as well," says Miller. And maybe you'll even expand your horizons. Tell your daughter up front that you've never listened to rap music and admit that you may be prejudiced against it, then ask her to teach you what it's all about. Who knows? You may end up buying a Ludacris album one day.

Bridging the Gap with Other Adults

You're an avid Democrat, your mother-in-law's a major GOP'er. How do you deal? "You can almost always find something to talk about," says marriage and family therapist Victoria Manion Fleming. Her tips:

Ask good questions. For instance, if your friend's husband mentions that he's originally from Tulsa, acknowledge the connection ("My brother lived in Tulsa for a while") and then ask what brought him to your area. Take a genuine interest in his answers.

Extend an olive branch. "Disconnects are often rooted in misunderstandings or miscommunication. A small act of kindness can go a long way," says Fleming. For instance, do you know where your cubicle-mate likes to shop? Keep your eye out for a coupon or sales-event flier.

Stick to specific activities. "If you all go bowling, you'll focus on the game," says Fleming -- meaning, you won't have to do as much talking.

Relax. Remember that you have a mutual connection with this person. If it's your husband's mother, let him direct the conversation. The onus isn't always on you.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 1, 2007, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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