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Decode Your Child's Split Personality

Who's the real child?

Kids are miniature versions of us. Sure, they have their way of doing things, but we see ourselves in them, and we see how much of us they take in. Their imitative behavior is not just charming but confirmation of where they come from.

So it can be discomfiting when we discover they're not us. "I was never particularly shy," says Randall de Sève, mom of Paulina, 10, and a former Brooklyn elementary school teacher. "So at first I just didn't get that Paulina was. I'll admit that I pushed her. But I've learned to step back. She does things when she's ready and feels secure."

More troubling is the idea that our kids are formed partly, even largely, by imitating "strangers" (friends, TV characters, nonfamily) -- coming home with a slang expression, for instance, or suddenly considering shorts with buttons uncool. It makes us unsure of where the roulette wheel of their developing self will finally stop.

The "real child" may also defy capture because our standards may differ from other caregivers'. Raquel Schaffer of Randolph, NJ, remembers being dismayed when a teacher reported that Schaffer's then 7-year-old daughter was "very quiet, and not very interactive with some of the children. The teacher even used the term 'outsider.' It shocked me. That's not at all what Jennifer is like with me, not what she was like the previous year at school. So I went to class to watch. What I saw was Jennifer as a little worker bee, getting her tasks done so that when playground time came, she felt like she could interact. The teacher saw her just doing her work, not fitting in. I saw why she was doing it."

Perhaps the best way to "get" who our child is: Be comfortable with the idea that everything in her environment -- parents, friends, teachers, cultural flotsam -- is her new amniotic fluid. What matters is not so much who and what contributes, but the results. The light shifts, the tides shift; our children will change as they grow, continuing to reinvent themselves even into adulthood.