Childhood is a time of supposed rapid change, and seasoned parents frequently tell me, "Enjoy it while you can. It goes by so fast." However, at Parent-Teacher Conference, I would report to parents about how their child was doing in class, and more often than not, the parent would smile, nod and say, "He has been that way since he was born."
As parents, we have a unique opportunity to nurture our child's distinctiveness. Our job isn't to construct a personality for our child, but rather to nurture her inherent individuality.
So I've come up with five things that I think will help develop and further nurture that individuality.
Allow children to be themselves
It's 8 a.m. and I wander into the kitchen to make breakfast only to find an explosion of craft paper and glitter glue. I have a very creative 6-year-old who likes to begin her day with crafting. One of the ways we can nurture children's individuality is by simply allowing them to be themselves, even when it seems inconvenient. I put breakfast on hold for five minutes and tell her, "I love to watch you be creative! Show me what you made."
Children come prepackaged as unique individuals with their own preferences and ways of doing things. I can be a neat freak and my daughter can be a living craft tsunami, and that's OK, because ultimately, I didn't give her life only to be a replica of myself, but rather to offer the world something uniquely her own.
Allow children to dream
Growing up, I heard my father repeat, "You can be anything you want to be." He allowed his children to dream. Childhood is the place of dreams, and you never know what dreams a child will think of next. Recently, we decorated our 6-year-old's room. I thought it couldn't be lovelier. But when I showed her the room, she just put her head down and said, "I wish it had a dinosaur." So, of course, we had to make some room on her pretty, white shelves for her swamp-green parasaurolophus.
Share in your child's interests. My daughter and I search for books about dinosaurs at the public library. I gave her a binder filled with paper, and on the pages, she drew the different species of dinosaurs. When we go on vacation, we look up what dinosaur museums or parks are in the area and go. It sounds inconsequential, but when we show an interest in our child's dreams, they grow up to be adults who pursue their passions.
Provide children with a variety of activities and experiences
Invite other parents with children to your home for play dates, dinner dates, etc. Go outside. Show them what's unique about the landscape where you live. Go to the farmers market with them. A simple trip to the grocery store can be educational for children by talking to them about the variety of produce available. Invite their friends over for a day camp and show them a new skill such as painting or theater.
As I grew up, my father taught religion classes while my mother attended art club. They were both avid readers and loved gardening. My father would walk with me in his garden and tell me the right way to grow tomatoes. Some days, I would come home from school to find my mom "cooking up a storm" for an event she was hosting. She was always having me taste-test her delicious meals and desserts for the events. Our home was bursting with sensory overload, which is exactly the type of environment a child's creative expression needs to flourish.
Show children how to work and help others
Children want to feel needed; they come with an inherent desire to feel important. My 18-month-old twins light up with enthusiasm whenever I pull out the vacuum; they want to vacuum like Mommy. Children are naturally curious and want to be involved in everything they see their parents doing. I love to see my twins giggle and smile up at me when the three of us try to maneuver the vacuum together. Those are the kind of memories I will cherish in my old age.
My 6-year-old has a sticker chart on the fridge. She has daily chores that she must do every day without any expectation of a reward, such as picking up her clothes and toys. But if she is a "first-time listener" and extra helpful, she can earn stickers as a bonus. She will lose stickers if she acts poorly.
When the chart is complete, she gets to pick out an inexpensive reward. This simple system enables us to communicate effectively about how well she is learning to work.
Praise and give children encouragement
Encouragement is easy to give. Tell them "I love to have you help me" or "I love that you are a good friend." Life will keep them humble. You cannot praise them too much. When we praise children, we give them permission to shine. Verbal praise and encouragement will stay with your child throughout their lifetime. They will rely on it during difficult challenges. Continue to praise your children even after they have left home.
Criticism can rip through relationships like a freight train of unwanted baggage. Children will make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Looking back, I feel that the realization of many of my dreams happened because my parents made it a point to continually encourage my potential rather than criticizing my faults. This, above all helped me to feel comfortable in expressing my individuality.
Alicia is a mother to four children, including identical twin boys. She is also a former high school English teacher. She writes about family and home on her blog. She enjoys the funny things her children do and say and is the author of Motherhood or The Widening Gap Between Showers (available on Amazon).