Have you ever been frustrated with your child because they’re just too particular and nit-picky? Have you ever been confused by them because they almost always seem preoccupied with “heaven only knows” what? Why is one child always coming up with new ideas and inventing things while another child is content to play with toys the way they are “supposed to?” Why do some children take pride in having a clean and neat room while other kids’ rooms appear as if they had been used for nuclear testing?
Nowhere is the breadth of God’s creativity and sense of humor more evident than in the pinnacle of his creation of children. If you’ve had more than one child, you know that no two children are exactly alike. If you’ve ever observed families with more than one child, you’ve probably at some point been amazed by the fact that children from the same gene pool, raised by the same parents, in the same neighborhood, eating the same diet, going to the same school and church, can be totally different.
In Psalm 139:14, we read King David’s words, “I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Thy works.” God has designed each one of us with a combination of gifts, talents, attitudes, beliefs, needs and wants that are different from anyone else. That is part of what makes parenting so exciting, and at times frustrating.
Christians believe that every person is made in the image of God and is of infinite worth and value. We acknowledge that every person is unique. Yet, as parents, most of us find it much easier to value the aspects of our children that are similar to us. I’ve heard parents remark, “Tommy is just like me, but I’m not sure where Jill came from. She is so different from the rest of us.”
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word different? Is it positive or negative? If I were to walk up to you on the street and say, “You sure look different today,” how would you take it? Would you think I was giving you a compliment and reply “Well, thank you very much?” Or would you think that perhaps I was being critical?
Different suggests a deviation from some kind of standard or norm. It suggests that something is not quite the way it usually is or the way it should be. Many people interpret different to mean “unusual, inappropriate, inferior or wrong.” Now if I were to say to you “You sure look like a deviate” you would know that I was being negative and critical.
Let’s try another word association. What do you think of when you hear the words unique or special? Do you tend to have a more positive response to those terms? Every person is different. Yet often those differences aren’t understood or valued.
Replicated scientific research has shown that infants show significant individual differences from birth. We know that infants are born with unique temperamental characteristics, behavioral traits and ways of responding to external stimuli. Some of the characteristics include their activity level, responsiveness, irritability, curiosity, soothability and their ability to signal their needs and inner states. Since every infant has a unique way of interacting with their environment, every parent must understand and relate to the infant’s uniqueness.
In the busyness of being parents, it’s so easy for us to forget that our children aren’t adults. They’re “only” children. And if we have more than one child in the house, it’s easy for us to forget that each child is unique. I’ve talked with many parents who have, without ever intending to, lumped all of their kids into the “children” category and forgotten that not only is each child unique, but also that there are different developmental tasks each child faces at a different age.
We believe that one of the most important aspects of parenting is knowing your child. Your effectiveness as a parent will be in direct proportion to the extent that your child believes that you know them, understand them and accept them. Notice I didn’t say you agree with them, but that you understand and accept them.
In Proverbs 22:6 we read, “Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it.” For years many well-meaning parents interpreted that verse to mean that they should decide what kind of person their child “should” become and then work as hard as possible to cram them into that mold. This is known as the cookie-cutter approach to parenting.
An in-depth study of the words used in that passage suggest that, rather than using the cookie-cutter approach, God is instructing parents to take the time to discover the God-given uniqueness of each child. God isn’t telling us to raise our children to become what we think they should become. He is saying “If you want to raise healthy children, observe your child, be sensitive and alert so as to discover their way, and adapt your training accordingly.”
After many years of working with families, I discovered that while few parents will dare to fight the law of gravity, many attempt to fight the law of differences. Even when the differences are recognized, they are rarely appreciated or understood. Think about it. When was the last time you complimented your child on some aspect of their personality, some opinion, or some way of doing something that is different from the way you would have done it? When was the last time you let them know you appreciated these differences? Before you go to sleep tonight, let me encourage you to give at least one compliment to each one of your children on one of their “differences.”
This article was first published in the Benton County Daily Record, Sept. 12, 1999.