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Parenting by Your Toddler's Personality Type

Experts share tips for parents on how to handle the different personality types of toddlers.

Less than 2 years old, Kira Wales was completely obsessed with digital clocks. Able to count to 10, she would intently stare at the clock reading, say, 6:53. And then she would turn to her dad, Jimmy Wales, and say conspiratorially, "I think it's gonna be a four next."

And then she would stare. And stare, according to Wales, founder of Wikipedia. "Until finally ... 'four!' she would say, throwing her arms in the air as if she had scored a Super Bowl touchdown."

And then, staring back at the clock, she would look sideways at her dad and whisper, "I think it's gonna be a five next ..."

Inquisitive like her father, Kira, now 8, was merely expressing her toddler temperament, according to pediatrician Harvey Karp, MD, author and creator of the best-selling book and DVD series, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. Kira had discovered the joy of patterns and took great pleasure, for about a week, in being able to predict numbers.

If babies are angels, then toddlers are cavemen, according to Karp. Rambunctious, mobile, and caught in a riptide of emotion, toddlers are the uncivilized, pedal-to-the-metal humans, matched only by the older edition called teenagers, experts (and parents) say.

"They eat light bulbs. They shove Legos in their noses," says Lara Zibners, MD, an ER pediatrician in New York City. "Toddlers are egocentric, emotionally labile, indecisive, and oblivious to danger."

Layer in their limited ability to communicate and their individual temperaments, says Zibners, author of If Your Kid Eats This Book, Everything Will Still Be Okay. "It's no wonder that many parents can't wait for their child to outgrow this difficult, yet often delightful, phase of childhood."

Yet parents can master understanding these little creatures. The first step: figure out your toddler's personality. Karp writes in The Happiest Toddler on the Block: "Temperament explains why some of us can sleep with the TV on while others go nuts with the tiniest noise, why some forgive easily and others just can't let go. Knowing your child's temperament helps you know when to pamper and when to push."

Toddler Personality Types

Generally, toddler personality is divided into three broad categories, experts say:

  • Easy or happy, but not full-tilt constantly
  • Shy or slow to warm -- often thoughtful and quiet.
  • Spirited (a nice term for "Get down off the refrigerator right now!")

The Easy Child: About half of kids are easygoing -- waking up on the "right side of the bed," cheerful and ready for a new day, Karp says. They're active, tolerate change, and basically like new people and situations. They don't anger easily but aren't pushovers, experts say. Parents need to just use common sense if this is their toddler's personality, with a couple of caveats. Easy children sometimes can be lost in the crowd -- spending too much time left alone with the television, or not enough time with their parents because other children demand the attention. Make sure that a child who is easy doesn't become a neglected child.

The Shy Child: About 15% of kids are shy or slow to warm up, experts say. By age 9 months, many easy babies will smile at strangers, but shy kids will frown and cling (they'll wave bye-bye only after a guest leaves). Experts say children with this toddler personality type are often extra-sensitive to the feel of their clothing or the temperature in a room. They need a lot of transition time from activity to activity and resist change. They might be late walkers and they will often study, with intensity, how a game is played before jumping in. "Their motto is, 'When in doubt, don't!'" Karp says. Parents, these are gentle souls -- and should be shielded from harsh criticism and ridicule, with the rejection making a shy child fearful and brittle throughout life. Also, parents need to make sure children with this toddler personality type have the stability and the time to process the curve balls of life; they can't be rushed into getting dressed or to sit on Santa's lap.

The Spirited (Wild) Child: About one in 10 toddlers is a strong-willed, challenging kid, experts say. "These roller-coaster kids have high highs and low lows," Karp says. "Parents usually know they have a spirited child because they're the 'more' kids." More active. More impatient. More impulsive. More defiant. More intense. More sensitive. More rigid. The No. 1 recommendation to parents with this toddler personality type: Keep them active. Get them outside to play -- a lot. These kids need to burn off their energy and work through their moods, experts say. They also need firm structure to keep them safe and stable -- and lots of patience.

Jill Berry, of Woodbine, Md., describes her experience with her toddler Julia. Starting at 2 years old, Julia developed a passion for red boots, refusing to wear sneakers until her mom insisted. The boots lasted until Jill noticed she was hobbling and finally, Julia admitted her feet hurt.

And as a toddler, Julia also announced she was going to live with her grandma -- packing 12 rubber ducks and a blanket in a suitcase. She once dismantled her bottom dresser drawer for a "boat." And on nights when the parents would have a late dinner, she would yell down from her bed, "Something sure smells good!"

"She is and always will be a character," says Berry. "Everything has to be her way or no way."

Every Child Is Unique

Of course, no child is contained within one toddler personality type, but these three types can be guides on how to interact.

"Pay attention and pick up the nuance of your child," Karp says. "Kids are like flowers, each one is different, but special. So whether your child is a playful poppy or a shrinking violet, love and celebrate your child for his or her uniqueness."

Victoria Loveland-Coen quickly discovered the difference between her 9-year-old twins' personalities at around 15 months old. "I had given them each a half of an ice cream sandwich. Olivia practically inhaled hers, but Juliet was savoring every bite very slowly. When Olivia was finished, she noticed Juliet was still working on hers." Loveland-Coen says Olivia's and Juliet's next actions were orchestrated with the finesse of chess players:

Olivia leaned over to her sister and said, "Watcha eatin?" Juliet: "Ice cream." Olivia leaned in closer, "Oh, watcha eatin?" Juliet giggled and repeated, "Ice cream," still keeping it inches from Olivia's mouth. Olivia switched tactics, saying "Big hug," and proceeded to give her sister a hug in order to get her mouth closer to the treat. Juliet returned the hug, but managed to keep the ice cream just out of reach. In the end, Juliet got to finish her ice cream and Olivia was thwarted, despite her best manipulative efforts.

"The interesting thing is that this was an early indication of their personalities," says Loveland-Coen, author of The Baby Bonding Book. "Olivia is to this day competitive, and jumps on every opportunity she can find. Juliet is all about having fun and connecting with others."

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