When you and your child are different

When you and your child are different (Duston Todd, Getty Images / October 16, 2012)

Imagine the literary masterpieces the world would never know if children grew up seeing eye-to-eye with their parents. (Romeo who?)

It's a truism as old as time that kids will spend many of their years feeling like their parents totally don't get them.

But sometimes they're more right than they know.

"I often talk to parents who look at each other and say, 'Where did we get this one?'" says Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, author of "You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded)" (Waterbrook Press). "These are the kids that drive us crazy because we're living proof that our way works — why would they want to do it any other way (than ours)?"

It's impossible to quantify how much parent-to-child head-butting is normal and healthy. Some, certainly. But for those who can't relate to their children — don't recognize themselves in them, aren't sure how to talk to them, find their interests and habits confounding — parenting can be especially anxiety-ridden.

"It can erode the relationship," says Tobias. "You really want to keep the relationship between you and your child strong so you can preserve it and enjoy it, and for discipline and motivation to be effective."

Often what's needed is a subtle reinterpretation about the role of a parent, say experts. The goal, after all, is not to shape children in your image, but to guide them to the best version of themselves.

"If they do something you really disagree with, you openly talk about where you draw the lines and why," says Margret Nickels, director of Erikson Institute's Center for Children and Families. "But try to give your child wiggle room when they're trying to express who they are and exploring and growing.

"The more you let them explore — with guidance — the more they will choose their own healthy way."

This may mean accepting your child's choice of violin over hockey or learning to admire his introvert tendencies, even as you keep up with your 600-plus Facebook friends.

"Kids want their parents to respect who they are and to be accepting," says clinical psychologist Paul Donahue, author of "Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters" (St. Martin's Griffin). "A lot of it has to do with not passing judgment and maintaining empathy and understanding."

It may help to talk about some of the more glaring differences out loud.

"I have parents come to me and say, 'My son or daughter is really lazy,'" says Donahue. "It's really important to acknowledge without moralizing that you're just different. 'I know you want to have a pajama day and we want to have a bike-riding day. How about we reach some common ground: Today we'll hang out in our PJ's for a chunk of the morning and tomorrow we'll do it mom and dad's way and go bike riding.'"

This can reinforce some larger real-world lessons as well.

"Saying, 'You know, we're different that way' shows that we are all different, but we can work together because people's needs are all legitimate," says Nickels.

Setting a tone of mutual respect can actually help you expand your child's comfort zone.

"You don't want to force-feed, but you do want to expose your kids to things that are outside their normal experience," says Donahue. "Maybe you want to go to an art museum and they don't want to. So you say, 'We'll go for an hour and then we'll go to lunch and do something you want.'

"We don't expect them to love it, but we do expect them to try new things," Donahue continues. "And I'd be careful about taking their rejection or ambivalence too seriously. Often the payoff is many years down the line. You just explain to your child, 'This is something our family does.' They don't have to love every single thing the family does."

Beyond activity-based differences, parents can enlist a child's help in finding middle ground.

"I have twin boys who are now 21," says Tobias. "All through fourth grade, Mike would do his homework at the table by himself. Robert was in the living room on his stomach on top of the coffee table with his feet in the air. The bottom line is both boys proved it worked.