Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Parenting Tool: Reframing Annoying Personality Traits

originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle

Since Rational Jenn posted her PD: One Word post, I have been thinking about some of my most beloved parenting tools. One of the tools I use most frequently is reframing. I first learned about this wonderful tool in the book Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. The book is one of my favorite parenting books (very compatible with non-punitive discipline), and I think much of the advice is applicable even if you don't end up with a particularly spirited kid.

Basically, the idea is that some of the traits that make children (and adults as well) hard to deal with can be viewed as good qualities when looked at long-term. We all come equipped with different kinds of personality traits, and once we learn to control them, they can be assets to our lives. For instance, the kind of child who has real trouble stopping what he is doing in order to listen to you may turn out to be a Howard Roark with eyes only for his goal. This doesn't let us out of having to teach him how to stop and listen when it is necessary; it is essential to help the child learn to use his personality rationally. The difference is a shift in attitude. Instead of not listening and being awful at transitions, we can choose to think of the child as persistent and focused. It is much easier to work on solutions in this frame of mind.

Here is a list of traits that we generally think of as negative, reframed into more positive attributes:

explosive, over-emotional = powerful emotions, dramatic, expressive
silent, anti-social = introspective, thoughtful
pig-headed, stubborn = determined, persistent
doesn't listen = focused, independent
fearful, a chicken = cautious, an observer
can't sit still, rowdy = physically active, energetic

You get the idea. Once you can identify the positive side to your child's (or partner's or co-worker's) annoying traits, then you are in a good mindset to kindly help her gain control of them. Here are some personal examples:

Livy is a very, very emotional, intense, expressive child. When she was a toddler, she didn't just say "no," like most of the children I know. She screamed it at the top of her lungs right into my face at the smallest provocation. "Would you like some hamburger meat?" "NNNOOOOO!!!!" "We need to leave for the mall now." "NNNOOOOOO!!!!" You can imagine what it was like when she was faced with something that she really really didn't want to do. It was tantrum city. Once, I was trying to put her into her carseat (against her will, as always, cause the child hated the car). She was fighting and screaming, "NNNOOOOOO!!!" I was getting mad, so I took a break to calm down. I conjured up the image of her in the backseat of some boy's car, and I imagined him trying to get her to do something she didn't feel ready for. I imagined how outspoken and expressive and explosive she would be. It helped me to accept that her big big emotions are a part of who she is and will be a wonderful part of who she will become. From that acceptance and reframing mindset, I am able to help her learn to express herself appropriately and to use her intensity as an asset.

Another trait that I try to reframe is Livy's orderliness. Some of you are probably thinking that this is a great trait, but it really conflicts with my way of being spontaneous and playing things by ear and being more free spirited. Lately, she has gotten so clean and orderly and routine and rule-focused, and it is driving me crazy. It bothers her when I change up the order in which I do tasks, when I leave dishes in the sink, when I let the grass grow too tall in the yard. It feels oppressive to me, like she has OCD or something (all you Myers-Brigg J people seem that way to me). So, I try to consciously reframe her behavior. I think of all the successful business people and doctors and engineers and accountants who really need to have these very traits. I try to think of her as orderly and precise, rather than OCD or neurotic. We still have to find solutions to the problem of two very different personalities living together in the same house, but it is easier to see it as a chance for creativity and problem solving when I reframe the traits into more positive ones.

This tool goes along very well with assuming positive intent, but instead of intent, it is assuming a positive side to personality traits. Just as assuming positive intent allows parent and child to move forward to a solution instead of dwelling on what happened, assuming a positive side to a personality trait allows parent and child to move toward solutions and skills that make the trait an asset, instead of dwelling on the traits we wish our children had been born with instead. Unlike the Pygmalion parenting that molds and forms children, using this tool means that we help our children to become the best version of themselves.


  1. Do you feel that one can make a general recommendation to have or raise children or not to do so? Based on Objectivism or in general on eudamonism or ideas of flourishing and happiness?

  2. I don't think so. I think that raising children is an optional value, one that can make you happy or miserable based on your context. Kids are a specific kind of job, with specific benefits and drawbacks, and I think individuals have to weigh them, just as they have to weigh the pros and cons of any other job. Just as engineering or architecture or teaching aren't for everyone, neither is parenting.


We'd love to hear your thoughts, so let's hear 'em! We're exploring serious ideas here, and think that a good intellectual discussion is a great way to fine-tune one's thoughts. Especially welcome are concrete examples from YOUR life, questions, and thoughtful challenges.

Personal attacks, spam, etc. is not welcome and will probably be deleted, unless we choose to keep them for our own amusement.