Education Cheat Sheet: Advice for Parents of the Quirky Kid
Every child is unique. But when should you let offbeat habits thrive and when should you rein it in.
Editors Note: My daughter quacks. A lot. It started when she was about 6 and loved talking for her favorite stuffed animal, a duck. It continued through first, second and even third grade with her classmates often greeting her back with a chorus of quacks. My husband and I are a bit quirky ourselves, but we weren’t sure when or if we needed to talk to her about her unique habit. Jyo Bridgewater of Holy Nativity has some advice.
I well remember when my cousin was in third grade and decided he was only going to wear dark green. It went on for months, moving from something mildly odd to a cause for exasperation and concern. When his classmates began to refer to him as “Mr. Green,” my aunt and uncle secretly rejoiced, confident that this would resolve the issue, as her reasoning and his roaring had proved futile. It did not.
And then, one day, my cousin resumed wearing other colors, leaving us all relieved, curious and irritated by his lack of explanation. Fifty years and a successful career in aerospace engineering later, he says he doesn’t even remember his months as Mr. Green.
As parents, our children’s unconventional behavior can leave us bemused and uncertain. How far should we humor the child that insists on drinking from a dog’s water dish or meows like a cat? And what about the child who has unusual interests, like one first grader who knew everything there was to know about a rather obscure European country. And talked about it. A lot. Or the fourth grader who could not play with others because he abhorred the mixing of “real” Legos with “fake” blocks and would quickly disassemble any constructions with these “imposters.”
All of us, to some extent, have a unique collection of idiosyncratic beliefs and behaviors. Most of these quirks are part of our charm as individuals, but sometimes intervention is both warranted and useful.
At a recent Learning and the Brain educators conference in New York City, an array of top psychologists, educators and researchers explored atypical behavior of many kinds and causes. The experts agreed that behaviors that had a negative effect on enjoyment of everyday life should be investigated further. Professional support may help in changing or controlling the behaviors or regulating the responses.
Beyond that, however, many of the speakers were split—some believing that quirky behavior was worth embracing, others advocating teaching typical behavior to increase the child’s ability to make friends and socialize. In the first camp was a psychologist who shared the story of a youngster who had a fascination with vacuum cleaners. The child was motivated to work at an early age to earn enough money to purchase his own vacuum cleaner (a pricey Dyson). He leveraged this experience, developing social savvy as well as work ethic.
The second group acknowledged that our quirks can contain keys to satisfaction, and that these should be nourished. Nevertheless, it is always an advantage to be able to understand and work with others. Prosocial behavior can be taught and coached, as . Perri Klass and Eileen Costello explain in their book, Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit in—When to Worry and When Not to Worry. If you are familiar with . Klass’ frequent articles in the New York Times, you will not be surprised by this book’s solid information and sensible advice.
For most of us, the middle ground will do. Take the opportunity to coach and affirm your child’s social-emotional competencies, while also supporting his or her interests and strengths. If you want to call furikake puffs “kibble” with your puppy-identifying elementary school student, go ahead!
1. Be a detective!
Try to take an objective look at your child and listen in openness to feedback. Yes, no one knows your child as well as you do, however, teachers and caring aunties or friends provide invaluable insights into how your child is perceived. Add this data to your assessment of whether the child’s quirks may benefit from coaching or counseling.
2. Learn more.
Here are a few parent resources.
- Ty Tashiro, the author of the book Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome has a must-see TEDtalk that shares his own quirky history, masterful coaching by his parents, and the upside of being different.
- The Science of Making Friends. UCLA researcher and psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson—part of the schools noted Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relationship Skills program—encapsulates the course for teens in this useful book. The accompanying DVD demonstrates such nuanced skills as “eye contact” and “breaking into a conversation.”
- Bright & Quirky, a website started by a mom and licensed family therapist, focuses on kids with unique strengths and challenges. You can see free webinars on a variety of topics of blogs on brightandquirky.com.
Jyo Bridgewater teaches sixth grade at Holy Nativity School, where she also serves as principal. An Episcopal school, HNS personalizes learning within an inclusive environment. Follow HNS on Facebook and Instagram @holynativityschool and on Twitter @holynativity.