The quintessential mother is fun, calm and kind, with unlimited patience and impeccable organizational skills ... right?
While we might excel in some of these areas, no one excels in all of them-except possibly that mother from "Father Knows Best." Even so, we sometimes wonder silently: What's the best mothering style? What ingredients make a good parent? Am I good enough?
Don't fret-just recognize and nurture your own unique style, says Janet P. Penley, author of a new book called Mother Styles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2006). Her book reassures us there's no one "right" way to parent. Once we recognize how we shine and struggle, though, she contends we'll be able to relate to others more positively-and to parent with less stress and more confidence.
To examine personalities, Penley uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) system of personality type, popular in career counseling and team building exercises. MBTI was developed by American mother-daughter team Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers based on the work of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. According to MBTI, people have innate mindsets in four different areas: energy, information, judgment and outer-world structure. After you take the MBTI (a modified version of which is in Penley's book), you are assigned one of 16 personality combinations, which tells you how you respond in certain situations and relate to other personality types (like those of your spouse, kids, in-laws, other parents).
From corporate to kids
Penley was a business manager before she quit to stay home with her children. She was struck by the lack of respect mothers had in society compared to the corporate world. "I felt like [executives] wouldn't treat any other professional like this," she says. "They would talk about the strengths of different management styles ... why not talk about the strengths of different mothering styles?" Her goal of treating mothers as respected professionals-the world's real VIPs who "keep civilization going," she says-led her to adapt the MBTI to analyze the profession of parenting.
Kristin Bronsteader, working mom of 5-year-old Emma in Clarendon Hills, remembers taking the MBTI at work back in 1995. She learned she is an INFJ-meaning her preferences lean toward being "Introverted," "Intuitive," "Feeling" and "Judging." Her entire team took the MBTI, and she thought it helped them all work more efficiently and with more respect for each other.
She never thought to apply the personality insights to her role as a mom, though. When she does, she realizes how encouraging Emma's impromptu songs and dances is just a natural part of her own intuitive side. Also, she admits how her tendency to overanalyze her daughter through deep conversations has led both mom and daughter to be overly dependent on one another. "We're so close, almost like friends," says Bronsteader. "Sometimes we need to be away from each other."
Home vs. work types
Is it useful to take a tool that's normally used in the work world and apply it to one's home life? Alyse Lasser, mom of two and an executive recruiter who has used other management behavior tools, isn't so sure. She reports that her priorities are different at work than at home in Schaumburg. "I might let a load of laundry sit on my couch for a couple of days, but I would never not return a candidate's phone call," she says.
Penley contends, however, that your type remains true no matter what the context. "Although it is natural to stretch and flex to the needs and expectations of different environments, your innate type remains the same," she says. For example, a "Perceiving" mom may consciously be more "Judging" at work (a highly valued trait in business, since it focuses on setting and reaching goals), but compared to a true "Judging" type in the same office, she'll still seem more like a "Perceiving" type.
Evanston mom and INFP Abby Brennan is president of her school's PTA, which has forced her to step outside of her comfort zone and be more extroverted and decisive. As a former manager of training and development, Brennan was certified to administer the MBTI. She values the tool and sees the applications at both home and work. "It reminds me that differences exist," she says. "Rather than fight those differences, I can build more effective relationships by trying to understand and work with them."
Like parent, like kid?
Once you understand yourself, you're better able to understand your kids and be more accepting of them, says Penley. While some experts believe they can determine MBTI types in 3-day-old infants, the MBTI recommends it be taken by those age 14 and older, when maturity and confidence about attitudes kick in. (The Murphy-Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children is available for 7- to 12-year-olds.)
Brennan's MBTI knowledge has come in handy when relating to her two sons, even though they haven't been formally assessed. Her son Riordan is in the first grade and she suspects he is more "Judging"-which is in direct conflict with her "Perceiving" mode of operation. "I'm a spontaneous, let's figure-it-out-as-we-go kind of person," says Brennan. "I really have to work to meet his needs and to plan things in advance." Her fifth grader, Owen, is more like her, and they have to work hard on being more disciplined about finishing school projects.
"I think it is hard on kids when their parents and teachers just don't 'get' them-often this is simply because of a difference in type," Brennan says. "I've seen quite a few extroverted teachers who didn't know how to relate to introverted kids, and in several cases, I've had teachers who couldn't assess my son's abilities because he didn't participate in group discussions enough." That's why she likes the MBTI: she feels empowered to work with-and despite-the differences between other people.
Penley sees another, ultimate benefit to families learning about personality types. "This is preemptive in ... pointing out that your style of giving and receiving and recognizing love might be different from your child," she says. "You can make that child feel more loved by tuning into [his] personality."
After taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you are declared one of 16 types based on the combination of four overall categories: Extroverted/Introverted (E or I), Sensing/Intuitive (S or N), Thinking/Feeling (T or F), Judging/Perceiving (J or P). Janet P. Penley offers this quiz (on www.motherstyles.com) to give you a general clue as to where you fall:
1. Although you probably agree with some of each, which of these two descriptions sounds more like you? (Check one.)
Extroverted parents are energized by going, doing, interacting and experiencing. They are typically "in the know" and get children out to experience the world. Too much time isolated at home can make them feel shaky and ungrounded. They are uncomfortable with a child who is more of a loner and needs a lot of solitude. (E)
Introverted parents are energized by solitude and time alone. They are observant, reflective and prefer one-on-one interactions. They know their children as individuals and provide them with "downtime" to unwind and recharge. Drained by too much interaction, they must guard their energy to make it through the day without exploding. (I)
2. Which of the following two descriptions sounds more like you? (Check one.)
Sensing parents focus on details and specifics. They attend to practicalities and the here and now. Hands-on parents, they see to children's basic needs and do concrete activities with them. They struggle to join in a child's imagination or understand a child who is different. They can get stuck in a rut. (S)
Intuitive parents focus on the big picture and possibilities. They quickly leap from facts to patterns and themes. They encourage children's creativity and imagination, point up options and offer them choices. Drained by the nitty-gritty, they struggle to deal with practicalities and be realistic. (N)
3. Which of the following two descriptions sounds more like you? (Check one.)
Thinking parents trust logic, objectivity and impersonal analysis. They let children do for themselves, foster independence and answer children's why's in order to fuel their rational development. They struggle to tune in to and be patient with children's irrational feelings. (T)
Feeling parents rely on values, feelings and personal information to decide. They strive to be physically and emotionally close, attuned to children's feelings and go to great lengths to make them happy. Seeking family harmony, they struggle to say no and be firm if it may cause conflict. (F)
4. Which of the following two descriptions sounds more like you? (Check one.)
Judging parents are intentional parents who like structure, plans, limits and order. They are adept at organizing day-to-day living so kids feel secure and don't miss out. They aim to get things done, on time and in the right way, but struggle to adapt to the unexpected, relax and have fun. (J)
Perceiving parents take things as they come and keep their options open. They are flexible and spontaneous and generally tolerant and accepting of children. They enjoy hanging out and can be relaxed about clutter, but struggle to do chores regularly and keep the house in order. (P)