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How to Parent Total Opposites Without Losing Your Mind or Your Cool

Photograph by Twenty20

I have been a mother for nearly five years now. When it was just my daughter, I thought I was absolutely killing it. She slept like a dream. She nursed like a pro. She listened to every single word I said and took it as gospel. I could say things like, “Hey, your dress is white. Don’t get any of that ketchup on it, OK?” to the 2-year-old version of her and she would nod and say “OK, Mom,” like a rational adult human. It made me feel like this job that I had dreamed of my whole life was one that I was actually made to do. Dare I say it? Most of the time, it was easy.

Then, two months shy of her third birthday, I gave birth to her little brother. That’s when my perfect little world, the one where I was the best mother in existence and my children were always civilized and well-behaved, shattered like the candle my son threw for no reason last week. I tried all the same things that had worked like a charm for his sister. I used the same swaddle blankets. I wore him in the same baby carriers. I sat him on the same timeout chair. None of it mattered. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t like to cuddle. He yelled at me from timeout and even put himself there when he felt like it.

Now she’s 5 and he’s 2 and they couldn’t be more different. If you tell her you’re disappointed in her, her crocodile tears start falling. If you tell him the same thing, he laughs. Every time. He screams and runs away from me in public places and throws silverware at restaurants. Still, she’s my soft-spirited girl. And he’s my barrel of spontaneity. Needless to say, avoiding a mental breakdown is harder now. I’ve learned that I have to handle each of them differently in so many ways.

First of all, no two children are the same, so trying to figure out their individual needs and wants is important. Be patient with yourself. You won’t always get it right. You won’t always control your temper. You won’t always win mother of the year. The good news is that mother of the year isn’t even an actual award, so you’re fine. You are trying. You are human. You are OK. Give yourself some grace and keep going.

These children belong to you and doing the hard work of getting to know them is crucial.

Do your research. These children belong to you and doing the hard work of getting to know them is crucial. What drives your children? What makes them sad? What makes them angry? What triggers them to react negatively in a given situation? Are those things the same for each of them? Probably not. Thinking about big things like this, things that make up the core reactions and feelings of your children, can help you figure out how to treat each of them.

Put them first. That seems easy enough but it’s also pretty hard to implement in the heat of the moment, when your blood is boiling and you’re staring at a child who is doing the exact opposite of what you need them to do. This is when you have to stop thinking like yourself and start thinking like your child. With kids, every emotion has a starting point. Sometimes, when my husband has been working late all week, my daughter will act out in ways that are very unlike her during the two-hour pre-bedtime window that she gets to be with him. Why does she do that? Why is it only with him? The answer is actually pretty simple: Our children just want us and attention is still attention, even if it’s negative. When you look at it like that, it all begins to click. Most everything they do is to warrant a reaction. It’s basic cause and effect: "If I do this, that will happen." So, in a lot of ways, it all comes down to us. If we can pull ourselves away from the adult stressors we are constantly dealing with and take time to read our kids a book, or ask our daughters about their favorite tv shows, or kiss our sons on the forehead when they’re overtired and throwing a tantrum, we can change it all.

Remember that they are just people, little people with big feelings. They won’t be rational about things when they ought to be. They won’t be realistic or grounded or diplomatic. They will require more of you and less of you at any given moment. It’s up to you to get down on their level, look them in the eyes and try to hear the words they aren’t saying. My daughter gets time to paint and draw with me. We talk about preschool and what her favorite part of every day is. My son and I build with magnetic blocks and identify animals and he gives me aggressive kisses directly on the mouth.

Time is everything. Giving it to our kids, as often as we can, really can turn the tables. It can make the crazy days feel so much less crazy when we consider that our children aren’t out to destroy us, that they just have big hearts and big minds and that they are just trying as hard as we are to love and be loved. Our kids will remember us by the ways we made them feel valued and important and known. Know your kids. Know them for what makes them different and what makes them the same. And love them for all of it.

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