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Your Child, Your Self

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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.