What are your best tips for raising an offbeat child?
by Jeanne Sager
Offbeat. Quirky. Are those words you'd use to describe your kid? How about geeky? All good things for a kid to be, but they can present a challenge to a parent: how do you nurture a kid who marches to the beat of a different drummer and make sure they're happy?
It's not nearly as hard as you'd think:
1. Show an interest in their passions -- even if you have to force it. "The biggest thing with kids is respecting their individuality," says Dr. Melissa Dufrene, clinical psychologist with Algiers Neurobehavioral Resource, "Any way you can celebrate that -- not just saying, 'This is what you're good at,' but really make the effort to explore it with them." Something as simple as asking a child, "Tell me what you like about it" can allow you to see something they're passionate about through their eyes.
2. Avoid labels. "Children catch on very quickly if they are perceived negatively or as different, and this can be upsetting even at a young age," warns Dr. Rachel Annunziato, assistant professor for clinical psychology at Fordham University. "In my clinical work, it’s not uncommon to hear children say that their parents find them 'weird' or believe they are embarrassed by them. It’s ideal if we can find ways to embrace whatever is offbeat or quirky about our kids while also being mindful of what we can do to help them socially."
3. Ask for help. If you have a child who is excelling or highly interested in something that isn't your area of expertise, don't be afraid to ask for help -- maybe find an activity within your school or community. It's good for kids to have outlets beyond the family, and it's good for them to see parents admitting when they simply don't know something or can't do something.
On the flip side, not trying to show an interest or help your child, warns Fran Blumberg, associate professor in the Division of Psychological and Educational Services at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education, may be perceived as a "lack of interest in the child or a devaluing of what the child likes to do."
4. Keep your goals separate from theirs. It can be tempting to push kids into activities and interests that you, yourself, are attracted to, especially when you're raising a child who avoids the mainstream activities you enjoyed as a kid. But how do you know it's right for your child? Dufrene suggests starting out any activity with the goal of having fun only. "It can be pretty clear when your kid isn't having any fun anymore," she says. "If you have to drag your kid somewhere, the goal has really been lost." If they enjoy it, continue. If not, move on.
Most community centers offer short-term programs that are a good starter for kids to see if they have a true interest without being tied into something they dislike for a long period of time. These are generally low cost as well, so parents don't have to commit to a big expense and feel the need to keep a child involved when they're unhappy.
5. Don't be afraid to push them beyond one interest. Kids can get very caught up with one particular interest, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't encourage them to broaden their horizons. "One strategy that I have found helpful as both a child psychologist and as a mother is to try and suggest variations of a theme," suggests Dr. Annunziato. "If your child is focused on princesses, he/she may be interested in puzzles and drawings that also include princesses."
Dufrene also suggests letting kids "earn" rewards, even something as simple as allowing them to earn involvement in an activity they are interested in in exchange for attending a class you feel they would enjoy ... that they might have been hesitant to try.
6. Be proactive. Bullying can happen to any kid -- no matter how mainstream or offbeat they are -- which is why Dufrene says it behooves parents to be on top of it. Ask your kids if they're experiencing bullying, and use examples from your own childhood to get you talking. Often, she says, kids fear telling their parents that they're being bullied because they don't want to disappoint them.
7. Love your kid, if not their passions. Praise and affection should not be tied to success, Dufrene warns. "I think the most basic perspective you can have is ... is your kid happy?" she says. "You can push them in different directions you thought they would go, but in the end, it's up to them."
Do you have a child who is a little quirky? What are your best tips for raising an offbeat child?