Accepting Our Children’s Differences

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We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all have things that come to us fairly easily, that we’re naturally good at, and things that we struggle with. True or false?

Our greatest strength, our core personality, is sometimes an asset, and sometimes a liability. Sometimes it helps us shine, and sometimes it bites us in the butt. True or false?

When we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, then we can make better decisions for how to deal with them. When we accept these differences in ourselves (and others), we can be more at peace with ourselves (and others). True or false?

When we remember these fundamental truths, we can live with more ease. Period.

Too often, we run around getting frustrated with our children, our spouses, our co-workers, ourselves, because we forget these truths. We want the world to be the way that works best for us, the way we think it should be. We are fighting reality, and it just adds to our toxic stress.

When we think all kids should fit the same mold, behave the same way, be good at the same things, be able to do all things we ask them easily and quickly, then we’re really piling on the stress levels unnecessarily. And unproductively.

Any of us who have had more than one child know that we can parent the same way – or in classrooms with lots of kids, teach the same way – and have individual children respond very differently.

Each child is unique. Just like every other child. This is a fun paradox to consider, one beautifully illustrated in my favorite Sesame Street book – which I carry around in my briefcase at all times and share any chance I get – “We’re Different, We’re the Same.”

This concept has important implications for how we parent and teach our children. Equal does not always mean the same. We can equally love our children, care for them, and do our best to meet their needs. But how we meet those needs will be as different as the needs themselves!

Quick, think about your child (one of them at a time, please). Think about whether you would rate them as Low, Medium, or High on each of these human characteristics. Able to sustain attention and effort on dull, tedious tasks? Emotionally sensitive and reactive? Adapts easily to transitions or changes in routine?

Clearly, if your child has difficulty sustaining their attention and effort on tasks, they will require more parental supports that are clear, specific, and encouraging (not punishing). If they are emotionally sensitive, they’ll need more sensitivity in caregivers who can help them regulate their emotions. If they are relatively low on flexibility and adaptability, then extra attention to structuring routines and preparing the child for transitions will be more helpful.

It doesn’t mean there is something intrinsically wrong or bad about being spontaneous, sensitive, or preferring consistency. These can be wonderfully useful temperamental traits – in certain situations.

And that’s my main point. It doesn’t do us much good to say this child is or isn’t good at paying attention. And even worse to make some global, critical judgment about it.

It’s much more helpful to focus on: when are they better at paying attention, and when are they worse? Under what circumstances do they thrive, and in what situations do they struggle more with attention and organization? When is their creative, wandering mind a wonderful gift, and when is it a burden?

When we can appreciate individual differences for what they are – namely, universal and not inherently good or bad – then we can respond to them more constructively. When we change how we VIEW our differences, then we can change what we DO with them.

There will always be differences, some things easy and hard, for each of us. No shame in that. Let’s just look realistically at the strengths and struggles for this child, and consider what serves this child best, in this situation.

How to structure morning routines, homework habits, and bedtime rituals – all starts with an empathic view of who our children are and what they need. Then we can figure out how best to meet those needs, given an honest appraisal of our own strengths and struggles.

With this compassionate understanding for our children and ourselves, we can get through the day with less stress, and more ease.

Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a child psychologist, mindfulness teacher, and father of four. Learn more about his educational programs and private consultations at

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