Before motherhood, I maintained a normal, healthy relationship with dinosaurs.
I mean, I’d been to the natural history museums in New York and D.C., as well as the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. I’ve seen huge finds — fossils and murals — and tour guides stage-whispering, “Can you even imagine a living creature THIS tremendous?”
Neat, I’d think — and then move on, hardly an aficionado.
Now I can perfectly pronounce the names of the most obscure prehistoric beasts. Quetzalcoatlus anyone?
I’ve led rogue expeditions on the littered banks of the city-adjacent Mississippi, agreeing that this rock and that rock sure did look like the skull of a mammoth or a pachycephalosaurus.
“I’ll get you into my museum for free, Mom, when I’m a paleontologist. And I’ll let you ride in my jeep.”
My son, now 7, has a career path far more clearly developed than that of most adults. Paleontologist by day, rock star by night … that is, lead guitarist in a world famous band comprised of other paleontologists.
And it all started during the toddler years. Those interests, the curiosity, and the personality — talkative, inquisitive, goofy, literal, flirtatious (but don’t let him catch you saying so), brave.
At some point between ages 1 and 3, it becomes clear that the soft, suckling creature you once knew as your baby is actually … a person.
A person who may, unlike yourself, delight in all things math and science. A person who might — much to your dismay — bring you bugs and worms and frogs, proudly and with flourish, like the pet cat providing the proverbial dead mouse.
While waiting for this person to arrive, you perhaps made a sworn pact as a couple. Elmo will never be a part of OUR world. So passionately did you talk about your mistrust of the red Muppet, that the script read somewhat like parents of the valedictorian forbidding their daughter to date the guy with the motorcycle.
Fast forward a year or two and — oops — the little bugger snuck in. And what’s more — you now like Elmo.
In fact, upon seeing him at Sesame Street Live, you burrowed your nose into your little girl’s hair as she sat on your lap. And you shed actual tears, overcome with emotion at seeing him in the fur.
It makes sense that you embrace your child’s interests. Enthusiasm is contagious, after all. So you get on board with bugs and worms, you turn a blind eye to the disturbing nature of every toddler’s fascination with that red fur.
You get an ant farm, you make a Sesame Street cake, and tally the first few of millions of crazy things you will do in order to make your child feel happy and understood.
But then, personality goes far beyond interests, doesn’t it? A person — whether 3 or 33 — is more than ponies, dinosaurs, seashells, rhyming, sidewalk chalk or whatever the obsession du jour.
Says Twin Cities mother Andrea Parish of her remarkably spunky daughter: “The tough part is that we have no basis in understanding her personality.
“We are both classic introverts and she is over-the-top extroverted. It’s hard to understand and sometimes even harder to parent.”
Throw in another kid or two and you find yourself navigating vastly different personality types, perhaps even using different parenting styles for each child.
Kristy Grigsby, a Lakeville mother of three says of her twins as toddlers: “She led her brother around by his shirt sometimes. And he just rolled with it. He was considered the laid-back one, while she had a flair for the dramatic. Being laid-back myself, I didn’t quite know how to handle her tantrums.
On the flip side, I’d have to make a conscious effort to make sure her brother wasn’t completely eclipsed by her big personality.”
Who knew? Our babies grow to be people — with wild imaginations, jars of bugs, a taste for tofu, perhaps a slightly neurotic obsession with cement mixers.
Toddler Parent, as you figure out — either gradually or suddenly — who your little person is, I encourage you to bravely move beyond the parenting books that so clearly use a one-size-fits-all approach.
Treating children differently is perfectly fair — because they are individuals, after all, with different needs, perspectives and interests. In the process, don’t forget to honor your own personality as well.
If you can’t handle Elmo, don’t. If you have a laminated list of rules in the face of a little free spirit, compromise slightly in the direction of your own leanings.
And as your child’s personality emerges, promising to — in rapid intervals — both horrify and delight you, be kind to yourself.
Kind, I say, because in time you may realize that the real parenting challenge comes not in the ways in which you and your toddler-person differ, but the ways in which you are the same.
Your own shortcomings, obsessions, qualities, and quirks mirrored back at you? May you look upon them with cringing, smiling wonder.
Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is the mother of two. She’s helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula.
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