Once the idea was that children are born as blank slates, written on by their parents — especially mothers — who were then responsible for who they became. In recent years, we have come to understand much more about the characteristics and abilities children arrive with in this world, and the role they play in the way parents and children interact with each other.

A psychiatrist who studied children, talked about seeing differences in newborn babies in hospital nurseries and spoke of the “executive baby” who already had the nurses doing her bidding. Children seem to be born with certain distinctive temperaments, or behavior styles which emerge in various ways early in life. Researchers have been interested in studying whether these characteristics carry over into adult life. There is some evidence that some of these differences are due to heredity.

Perhaps more interesting is the question of how these innate characteristics develop over time into distinctive individual personalities. This is where all that has been learned about development in recent years can give us some clues. We know that parents are not simply writing on a blank slate, as was once thought but that children are partners in their own development. Their native endowments elicit from parents and others certain responses. Their cries of hunger or pain bring the attention they need. Their smiles and other emerging skills cause others to react with pleasure and engage with them socially.

So it isn’t only that children react to their parent, it is also that parents react to their children. This interaction between them is possibly more significant than either of their personalities individually; yet their individual personalities have a big impact on the way they interact with each other. Parents react to their children, and children in turn react to their parents’ reaction.

In the interaction between them, there can also be a mismatch of personality, or behavioral styles. Parents often talk about children pushing their buttons. Sometimes this simply refers to children carrying things too far and provoking their parents. But in other situations, it may reflect an aspect of a child’s behavior that is particularly intolerable to his parent, whereas it might not have the same effect on someone else.

An example might be outgoing parents with a slow to warm up child who becomes clingy in social situations. For such parents, it might be particularly difficult to accept or tolerate their child’s different personal style. When a child begins to move out into a larger world, this behavioral style may be repeated with others, perhaps leading to his being excluded by peers, or fading into the background in school. This may serve to reinforce lack of confidence, and contribute to the ongoing development of a particular behavioral style. Parents worry about this and it may lead them to try to induce their child to behave differently.

Understanding how possible differences in style or temperament between our child and ourselves influence our child’s development, can be useful in thinking about conflicts that may be developing in the relationship. We need to consider whether a child’s behavior we are trying to change or that irritates us, is unacceptable in a larger sense, or simply runs counter to our own personality style. If we can accept the differences between us we can play an important role in helping a child be successful within his own style of behavior.

The saying is that “opposites attract.” But in the case of parents and children, opposites can distract from the positive impact we are capable of having on our child’s development.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.