All children are different… but how they are raised should not be

All children are different because each child is unique, but there is no doubt that some are more different than others!

WORDS: Dr Terence Sheppard (B.Ec., B.A. Psych. (Hons), PhD)

It is true that many kids grow up smoothly. They meet their developmental milestones on time and create successful lives for themselves with a minimum of difficulty. These kids make parenting look easy!

Others, however, are different. Their lives, if not exactly a struggle, are much less serene. They may be noisier or quieter than their peers, develop more slowly, learn less easily, or simply be interested in different things. Less often some may be diagnosed with a psychological disorder, developmental delay, or cognitive disability of some kind.

Either way they are different.

The ongoing interaction between nature and nurture, which varies for every child, is reflected in differences in their personality, aptitudes, and skills which make up the unique pattern of their person. Thus, some kids are extroverted while others are withdrawn, and some achieve superior academic or athletic performance while others struggle and so on.

At this point it must be stressed that a child’s personality, preferences, and aptitudes are never permanent (this is also true of adults but is more obvious in children). The child you see today will not be the same person tomorrow and may, in fact, change beyond recognition. This observation should caution us all – parents, teachers, and health professionals – to avoid definitive statements today about the likely capacities of a child or adolescent in the future.

It can be distressing for parents to receive a diagnosis which suggests their child is behind – and sometimes well behind – their peers in significant aspects of their development, intellectual capacity, or socialisation. But it is important to remember that even those with a significant disability remain fundamentally normal children in the sense that they need and deserve the same approach to parenting as their more mainstream peers.

Labelling a child who has been diagnosed with a disorder or disability of some kind as somehow abnormal or worse a ‘problem’ is of no help to them. And taking a fundamentally different approach to raising them, even though they may need additional support and intervention, is the worst thing parents can do.

Why? Well because all children are the same – including those less capable, in some ways, than their more blessed peers – in the sense that they all have the same needs for love, care, attention, discipline and respect from their parents. What is more, those considered ‘less able’ still have to grow up and live an independent life when their parents are no longer around to support them. Which, in the majority of cases they will, with extra assistance, be capable of doing.

The danger is that our natural compassion for these kids will lead us to lower our expectations of them – in terms of what they are truly capable of or how they behave towards others for example. But, in the longer run, lowered expectations of how they are expected to perform or conduct themselves will make it even harder for them to thrive in the wider world and merely add to the difficulties they are already facing.

Any diagnosis of your child, however grim, is not the end of the story, it is merely the beginning. Never forget that a diagnosis of a child is simply a ‘snapshot’ of where they are today. It should never be regarded as a permanent statement of who they will always be. The people they become will primarily depend on how they are supported, educated, and socialised as they grow.

The principles of parenting we advocate for all kids, no matter how more or less ‘different’ they may be are:

  • All children should be encouraged to travel as far as possible (in every direction) as they are capable, regardless of where they are currently on their developmental journey.
  • It can never be over emphasised that an assessment of a child at any point in time is merely a ‘snapshot’ of where they are today, not a dependable guide to the person that they can, with love and encouragement, become tomorrow.
  • Relative to their level of ‘disability’ or ‘delay’ parents should place similar expectations on a child, in terms of their character development (particularly personal maturity), as their non-diagnosed peers, even if they continue to be behind in some areas.
  • Parents should also continue to raise their aspirations for every child, subject to their progress, to encourage them to keep striving for further improvement.
  • All children need a family environment created by love, respect, affection, routine, rules and discipline, even if they also require individual support or specialist intervention. And if they are ‘different’ their need for acceptance, respect and love will be that much greater than it is for their ‘mainstream’ peers.
  • Parents should avoid defining or labelling a child in terms of ‘disability’, ‘disadvantage’ or ‘delay’. Ideally they accept and respect all their offspring for the people they are, while continuing to assist them progress as far as they can go.
  • If a child does display less of a particular capacity, necessary for achieving adult independence, then their need for positive parenting, particularly the expectation that they will travel as far as possible towards an independent life, is, if anything, that much greater than it is for others.
  • Every child is different, unique in fact; we wouldn’t expect or want them all to behave or perform in the same way. From this perspective differences should be accepted and respected rather than be a reason for disappointment


Positive Parenting, RRP $44.00

Dr Terence Sheppard (B.Ec., B.A. Psych. (Hons), PhD) is a child psychologist with over 30 years of experience in the field and the author of Positive Parenting, a comprehensive guide to successful parenting.

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