Parenting A Child Whose Personality Is The Polar Opposite Of Mine

by Kimberlee Shaw
Originally Published: 
A mother holding her child and showing him an unknown object in the distance on a sunny day

I am the firstborn child of three. My sister is 17 months younger than me, my brother six years younger. Whether you believe the whole birth order theory or not, it certainly holds true in my case. Good, bad or indifferent, a lot of traits attributed to firstborns apply to me: structured, cautious, controlling, confident, perfectionist. (My husband would probably add stubborn and dominant, though I prefer to use the adjective “assertive” instead.)

When I was almost 30, I gave birth to our first child, a little bundle that was half an ounce shy of 6 pounds, 19 inches long, and possessed a head of dark hair and the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on a baby. It was a difficult labor, but thankfully there were no long-term health effects from the birth.

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Within the first day, my tiny newborn was showing her personality. I was trying to breastfeed her, but she’d just take one or two sucks, and if she didn’t get a mouthful of milk, she immediately screamed. Can you say impatient?

As she grew, she revealed more of her traits. I still think back to her first birthday party, which we held at our home. We invited family and friends. There were lots of children there, from babies to teens. For most of the afternoon, my daughter quietly observed the festivities, scanning the room, taking it all in. The loud kids, many of whom she didn’t know, didn’t faze or scare her. She watched them with a keen interest. Reserved, observant, taking in all the sights and sounds. She’s still like that today.

I found it fairly easy to deal with my daughter’s personality. Sure, she could be challenging at times. But I understood her, I got her—it was like parenting a little version of myself. I knew what motivated her and why, which approaches would work with her and which would backfire. Even now, as a high school junior, she is very driven, very much a perfectionist, confident and conscientious. We can relate to each other.

A few months after my daughter turned 2, my son was born. From the very start, it was a completely different ball game. My water broke on a Thursday night just as I sat down to watch Friends. We went to the hospital, and after about two hours and a couple of pushes, my beautiful black-haired boy entered the world. They placed him on my chest, and he immediately began to breastfeed.

My son. My baby boy. This child is so different from my daughter in almost every way. Ever since he was a baby, so many people have used the same words and phrases to describe him: an old soul, a wise old man in a baby’s body, kind, caring, thoughtful. His first grade teacher told me at the parent-teacher conference that he was like the absent-minded professor.

Now, at 14 years old, he is still a laid-back, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He holds doors open for people when we enter a store. Without a second thought, he’ll help an elderly lady put her grocery bags in her car. When I cry in church because they’re singing a hymn my mother loved, he holds my hand. He is not fazed in the least by what people think of him: His sister tells him not to wear his silver pocket watch to school for fear that others will make fun of him, but he brushes her off, saying, “I don’t care, I like it. If other people don’t, that’s their problem.”

© Kimberlee Shaw

While his sister is driven, my son is the opposite. I don’t want to use the word unmotivated, because I think that has a negative connotation. He’s not a slacker, but he is less competitive. When he got an honorable mention at this year’s science fair for the solar oven he built, he was happy with it: He enjoyed the process of researching and building the oven, and that satisfaction was his reward. He doesn’t need outward recognition or the social approval others to feel comfortable in his own skin.

So he’s a fantastic kid, and everyone he meets is drawn to him. But here’s the thing: My personality and his personality are very different. With my daughter, I knew how to parent her. With my son, all bets were off. I had no idea how to motivate him. I couldn’t figure out what made him tick. Techniques that came so easily to me when parenting my daughter were rendered useless when it came to my son. It was (and still is) easy to light a fire under her butt and get her to do what she needs to do. My boy, not so much.

I expect perfection from myself. I like everything in its place. I need to feel in control to feel calm, and there’s a part of me that seeks validation from those around me. My son is happy to float through life, “accidental-like on a breeze,” as Forrest Gump said. Perfection isn’t a priority, whether it’s schoolwork or sports or cleaning his room. No plan, no control? No problem.

But as I’ve watched him grow these 14 years, I’ve learned a few things from my son. Thanks to the challenge of parenting this child who is so different from me, I’ve gradually mellowed in some of my own firstborn traits, and I’ve realized that I don’t want to change him one bit. Sometimes I’m baffled at the way he handles a situation, but I remind myself that he is not me. He is his own person, and I embrace our differences. By his example, he’s helped me realize a few important things in life:

If something happens to alter the carefully planned schedule I have in place, it’s not the end of the world. Adapt.

Perfection isn’t always attainable, and it isn’t always necessary.

Don’t overthink things. There’s a time and place for caution, but sometimes you just need to run with it and trust your gut.

Confidence can be helpful in certain situations. But to be vulnerable, to be yourself, and to not worry about what others might think can actually be empowering.

Slow down. Stare at the clouds. Wonder at nature.

Have fun. Find humor in daily life. Make others laugh.

Be kind. Listen. An unexpected hug, squeeze of the hand or smile can make someone’s day.

Look beyond yourself. In our rush to accomplish all we need to do in any given day, take time to stop and notice others around you. Their joy, their pain, their hurt, their accomplishments.

I pray and thank God every day for the gift of my children. As they grow and mature, the tables begin to turn, and I find myself learning from them. While parenting my second-born started out as a challenge, I’ve grown as a person by being his mother. I wouldn’t trade that—or him—for anything in the world.

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