Embracing the Process of Differentiation in Children & other lessons from the “I hate pants” tantrum
Every parent has a favorite temper tantrum story etched in their memory— the reason the child is melting down and the level of eruption are so absurd, you really can’t help but laugh. I mean, really, how dare you take the wrapper off his straw.
One of my kids went through anti-pants phase for a few years (anti-trousers for you British). One morning I was trying to get the kids out the door in the freezing rain. I tried to approach the anti-pants child with a reasonable compromise: a dress with leggings. After finally wrestling them on her, she looked down at her legs and collapsed in angry tears. She pounded the ground with her fists, writhed her way out of the leggings, beating them on the ground over and over screaming, “I hate pants! I hate pants!” for a good ten minutes. Of course, I did what every parent might need to do to remain sane in such a moment and video taped the whole thing.
If you can look beyond the drama of her two year old temper tantrum, you would see that actually, this is a significant stage of development. She is learning to differentiate. In its earliest forms, this is where the two year old begins to wrestle with the concepts: I am separate from my parents? I can say no? What do I want? Just how much power do I have?
Of course, we have tasks as parents as well – our task is to teach kids how and when to say no. No, you can’t go out bare-legged in the freezing rain. No, you can’t run in the parking lot. No, you can’t snatch that toy because you want it.
Learning to say no is our introduction to differentiation, but as children move through their formative years, differentiation continues as children attempt to figure their preferences, strengths, and personalities. They begin asking the questions, What am I good at? Why am I not good at xyz? Is it okay to be different than other kids? And we as adults have an incredible amount of power to bless or inhibit this process of exploration.
So how do we encourage healthy differentiation in young children?
Watch for and affirm their uniqueness.
Part of what makes us unique is all the little quirky things that surface from the time we are young. One child loves to try new foods while another can eat the same thing day in and day out. One child will pour over books for hours while another loves to take things apart to see how they work. One child eats daintily and hates to get her hands dirty while another shovels the food in with two hands and needs a bath after every meal.
Believe it or not, the seeds of calling might be found in some of these unique characteristics. Developing a pattern of being attentive, calling out, and blessing the distinctives of each child’s personality and gifting lays important foundations in their sense of self.
When our oldest was young, she was loud. She sang loudly. She told stories loudly. She wailed loudly. We even had her hearing checked in case she didn’t realize her own volume. However, over time, instead of fighting against this personality trait, we moved into embracing it. This child just lives life loud. She is a force and a presence and frankly, we came to see how much life and joy she brings everywhere she goes; this strength is a powerful part of her calling.
Look for the quirks. Call out and bless the quirks. Leverage the quirks.
Some kids need support to grow into their voice.
Some children by nature have a hard time figuring out how to express what they want. There are a variety of reasons for this: fear of disappointing others, feeling a time pressure, fear of making a wrong decision, a bossy sibling who usually decides everything. Your job as a parent will be to help them learn how to make decisions and express their opinions.
When our twin daughters turned five, they received birthday money from their grandparents. When we took them shopping, one of the girls wanted a huge Pet Shop set, but purchasing it would require they put their money together and share the set. Her twin whose life goal of “I just want everyone to be happy,” did not really want the Pet Shop set, but she knew saying no would make her sister upset. I could tell she felt obligated to say yes.
I distinctly remember carrying her away from her sister, getting down at her eye level and saying, “Mimi and Poppy sent you this money because they wanted you to choose something for yourself. Your sister will always have strong opinions about what she wants, but you are going to have to learn to choose for what YOU want even if it makes her mad.” At first she cried at the sad reality that she couldn’t make everyone happy (an important life lesson that starts even at this age), but looked up hopefully as she realized I was going to support her deciding for herself.
When children (or adults) are growing into their voice, they need external support. Some kids come out calling the shots, and others need coaching to learn how to discover, express, and hold on to their opinion. Affirm their choices and differences when at all possible— those are the things that make that child special.
Others need help figuring out how to express their voice APPROPRIATELY.
For the kid who has a larger-than-life personality, your job will be teaching them how to navigate their strength. Healthy differentiation in children is NOT giving them license to do whatever they want. We want to teach our kids about interdependence — how as families, friends, and citizens, we must respect and honor others. Sending messages like: your strength is to be used to protect the weak…. you have leadership gifting, be careful where you are leading others … your strong voice is crossing over into disrespect–communicates not that you don’t like a certain character trait but how it is being used.
Pay attention to when you are trying to get your child to conform.
Let’s be honest, we don’t mind that kids are unique unless it begins to reflect on you or your parenting. The child who wants to dress herself for the church Christmas party. The boy who bosses everyone around incessantly. The ADHD child who really can’t sit through an entire meal with your in-laws. The introverted child who doesn’t like to speak up.
These are the most difficult moments where we as parents have to differentiate ourselves from our kids. If we are too keyed into what others are thinking, we project our insecurities on them and send them messages that we don’t like who they are. There’s value for them (and for us!) to support their individuality when we can.
When at all possible, bless your child’s uniqueness even when it’s in the raw stages of formation. We can send messages that we see and affirm who you are AND still be calling them towards appropriate expression and growth. A friend of mine sent a fantastic blog post by a woman named Katherine Ruch on how to bless your child in their raw development – take a look at it here.
The bottom line is well differentiated children become well differentiated adults. And the process of differentiation surfaces again at different points later in life when we are trying to get back in touch with pieces of our selves that have gone dormant. So let’s start our little people on the path to healthy sense of self early by affirming the beauty of who they are.