Parenting the good kids and the odd ones out

Parenting the good kids and the odd ones out

A few years ago, I heard Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind, speak at a conference. She’s an old college professor of mine, and also a public figure, who doesn’t talk much publicly about her family. But in this session, she got more personal than usual, explaining that older parents are supposed to share whatever wisdom they have with younger ones.

I’m a decade or so behind her, and I’m so grateful she did. That was years ago, and what she said that day changed the way I thought about myself, and about my kids. About other people’s kids, too, really.

That day, Susan said, “Every family with three or more kids has one kid that they just can’t figure out.” (I’m curious to hear your thoughts—is this your experience, as a child or as a parent?)

I have four kids, and do I ever relate. 

The odd kid out

The odd kid out isn’t necessarily a social misfit; instead this is the kid who isn’t like her siblings, the one who doesn’t fit neatly into your family system. There are many possibilities for why this kid doesn’t groove, among them:

• slower chronological development (either physically or emotionally)
• different ways of processing information
• lack of awareness of social cues
• different priorities

These kids tend to have their struggles early in life: their struggle is to find their place.

The good kid

The good kid, on the other hand, is the one who seems to practically raise himself. This is the kid who doesn’t put a foot out of line, who doesn’t get his name written on the board, who gets his homework done early and puts himself to bed on time.

That all sounds great, so what’s the problem?

• Many good kids operate out of fear.
• They’re afraid people will reject them if they fail, so they never fail.

The good kids tend to struggle in the middle. These are the kids who sail through adolescence drama-free, only to have a massive breakdown in their early thirties.

(I was a good kid.)

Bringing it home

It’s normal for kids to need help understanding who they are, what they’re like, what they need. Teaching kids to self-evaluate is key, especially for the kids who are struggling to find their place in the world.

Many kids—especially the kids who are a little out of step with the world, or even with their families—aren’t particularly self-aware. But self-awareness is a huge life skill: that’s what keeps you from having an epic meltdown about the state of your whole entire life because you’re hungry.

What those kids (and let’s be honest: some grown-ups) need is a way to think about themselves.

How do you do that? I was overjoyed when Susan validated my inner personality geek, and told us, Do every personality quiz you can. Then celebrate the results, no matter what they are: That’s what type you are! Isn’t that cool?

Personality assessment tools give people language to talk about what’s going on in their heads, their work, their relationships. These tools help people see patterns and problems, strengths and potential shortcomings. I wrote a whole book about how understanding personality—your own and others—will change your life; it’s called Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, and it comes out on September 19. My experience writing this book has only deepened my appreciation for the difference these tools can make in your life.

But most kids won’t find those tools on their own. It’s up to us, the grown-ups, to point them in the right direction.

I’m also grateful that Susan made it clear that it’s not “better” to be a good kid, or the odd duck. The good kid and the odd kid out both have the same distance to go. It’s easy for parents to think that the odd kids out are (unpleasantly) challenging and the good kids are pure joy to parent, but that’s just not so. Both these kids have their struggles, but those struggles look different, and crop up at different times.

I’m eager to hear about your experience with this. Tell me about growing up as the good kid or the odd kid out, or the sibling to one. Parents: do you see these dynamics at work in your own family? I’d love to hear the details. Feel free to keep your comments anonymous.  

P.S. Buy Reading People at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Book Depository, or wherever new books are sold.

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43 comments

  1. Cassie says:

    Definitely a good kid here. I am still wrestling with my people pleasing tendancies. And yes my 30s have been a bit heavy as I wonder what is really my purpose as I adjust to being a SAHM of one.

  2. This is fascinating. The podcast “Hidden Brain” is going to do a feature on personality tests and is looking for people who have taken them.
    Another good kid. I suppose a divorce in my 30s was the massive breakdown, or at least seen by my parents as an unforgivable failure. Now in my 50s, I’m more sanguine about it all.
    I have only one child, and while I regret not having been able to provide a sibling–my own brothers are my best friends–I sometimes wonder how people with more than one kid manage to split up the time.
    Among my siblings, there were two “odd” kids. One was a hyperactive monkey from Day 1, and my mom, who had done OK with two kids up to then, lost it with crazy #3. But he turned out great. #2 kid was the first boy on my dad’s side and got the royal treatment. He was a sweetie, but sure that he knew better than everybody. He got into alcohol and then drugs and never got out. #4 was another good kid. I think good boys are different than good girls, as far as acting out of guilt, wanting approval, etc. My baby brother was just easy going and lovable. Dyslexic, and thus terrible in school, but talented in other ways. Turned out to be a salt of the earth guy, but also very intolerant of anybody else’s weaknesses. He managed to stick to the right path and thinks those who didn’t should bear the consequences. Very religious and traditional. I don’t foresee him breaking down, and he just turned 50.

  3. Suelizbeth says:

    I was a good kid and, no surprise, my 30s were a disaster. I’m so glad to finally know why! I’m in my 50s and can look back with this information and see it all, now. I’m also the oldest and I’ve often wondered whether oldest children are often the good kid?

  4. Brandyn says:

    I’m in my mid-30’s and I’ve been thinking about how afraid to fail I am. I really wish I had failed more as a teenager. I was always an introvert, but as a child I was an outgoing introvert. Some late childhood/early teenage bullying made me much more shy and I think as a consequence, less willing to risk being wrong. I only wanted attention on my terms and failure risked unwanted attention.

  5. Rachel says:

    Oh, this is happening in our family! We have five, and the oldest… “doesn’t groove”. For fun one evening we all took a shortened Meyers-Briggs, and we are a family of INFP Peacemaker/Idealists, with our eldest daughter an ISTJ Logistician/Analyst! It helped me SO MUCH to see that she isn’t a defective member of our family – she is simply, different. And has so much to add!

  6. I’ve been parenting four rowdy boys for the past 23-ish years, and can corroborate your observation, because even thought they run as a pack, there’s one who is different in almost every way. What worked to motivate the other three sent him into tears and frustration; as a homeschool mum, I found myself fiddling with the program to make it work for him. He’s a delight in every way, so I’m glad he is who he is, but how he managed to emerge from the same gene pool that produced the other boys . . .?

  7. Anonymous says:

    So interesting about the good kids operating that way due to fear. Out of my four kids, yes, there is the one who makes the ripples and required so much discipline as a young boy. He is still dynamic and doesn’t seem to have that fear. The others are gentle, happy people but this heads up about crashing later in life is intriguing. How does it relate to spankings? Would like to know.

  8. Wyndi Labrecque says:

    I’m a good kid, and I’m parenting a 7 year old “good kid” who’s qualified as gifted. He’s such a sensitive, anxious, old soul. We struggle a lot around here because I want so much more for him than the struggles I had. Isn’t it so hard to see your child struggling with the same things you struggle with? Luckily, I’ve been exposed to personality theory, gifted theory, etc. I’m far more aware and just hoping to give him tools to cope earlier than I had them and avoid some of the pitfalls. I didn’t wait ’til my 30’s, but I definitely had a young adult disaster!

  9. momof3misses says:

    WOW! I wish I was at the conference because it would have settled the inner turmoil I am going through right now. I have 3 children (21,19,9 all girls). I am also considered a “more experienced” parent with the 9 year old but she has definitely sent my confidence as a parent in a downward spiral. My oldest was difficult behaviorly in elementary school but mostly at home(she did have a few instances of not being nice to classmates in 2nd and 3rd grade) but once we figured that all out looking back she was a breeze. A perfectionist and her own worst critic but otherwise good. The 2nd had a traumatic brain injury at 3 so that came along with a whole other set of issues which continue so she has been difficult but I don’t know how much is the injury. Number 3 was a great baby-very clingy and knew when I wasn’t holding her at a very young age but pretty pleasant. Once we hit elementary school all her frustrations came tumbling out. This past summer she was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder and has some oppositional defiant disorder and dyslexia (only math related). I know we will eventually figure it all out but I continually feel like we have been “slammed” with one thing or another. I never knew parenting would be this hard. I always felt left out as a kid but I didn’t have any siblings other than a half brother 15 years older than me and he left the house at 18 to go to college and married at 22. My parents were a bit older than others and I always felt like I didn’t belong and sometimes still do.

  10. A says:

    I am a “good kid” raising a five year old “good kid,” and as another commenter mentioned, it’s so difficult to see your child struggling with the same things you did. I’m not sure that I even have any answers about how to help her, as I know that I still struggle with people-pleasing tendencies. I definitely had my adult breakdown, perfectly timed with hitting my thirties, where fear of admitting failure and refusal to ask for help lead to a much worse struggle with postpartum depression than it should’ve been if I’d just been able to admit I was struggling. As a Believer, I try to remind my daughter that she is made in the image of God, even if she fails, and that her worth is not determined by her actions, but by the fact that God made her and loves her. This perspective is something that I was lacking in my youth, and I hope it makes a difference in her life!

    • Susie K. says:

      Amen! I became a believer as an adult, and struggled with far too much “good kid” fear that i now know would have been much easier if only I understood my true identity… not my self-inflicted impossible one!

    • Mel says:

      Yes! Same here! I was a good kid, people pleaser and I see that a lot in my 7 year old son. I’m so thankful for him because his younger brother who is 5 and Super Strong Willed has ADHD and is just really challenging. But I worry about how “good” he is and if his actions are based on fear of our disapproval? I want them both to know they can fail and God will still love them; that my husband and I will still love them.

  11. Aimee says:

    In our family we have two introverted parents, an introverted firstborn and one VERY extroverted second born. We try to be very intentional about appreciating the energy & joy & spontaneity she brings to our family, while also recognizing that most members of our family need a lot of alone time to recharge. We’ve had to come up with creative solutions at times to make sure everyone in the family has space and freedom to be themselves, but I definitely think we are stronger together for it!

  12. K says:

    This is another reminder that there is no substitute for common sense and good parenting instincts when it comes to dealing with kids. I’m a mother and a teacher and have seen just what you’re discussing played out again and again over the last 25 years. The children (particularly those in middle and high school where these issues can become more obvious and ingrained) who have consistently had the most notable obstacles are the ones who either have parent(s) who insist their child see the world and react to it from their own standpoint or who are being raised with siblings so that all are treated “exactly the same”. Surprisingly, these were the kids, not the neglected or ignored ones, who struggled the most. Sometimes it is socially, sometimes academically, sometimes with overtly rebellious behaviors, but these kids who are regularly expected to act in a way not consistent with their personal needs are the ones who have been the most heart-breaking to watch struggle to grow into happy adults. As a mom, I have had plenty of doubts and worries, but the one thing I never did was treat my own kids the same. My husband and I have always been scrupulous about being fair, but have recognized that treating them the same could have tragic consequences. I, of course, still have doubts and worries, but now that my kids are grown, they have acknowledged that they are happy that their differences were recognized and respected. Thank goodness for the wonderful students over the years who helped me to see this.

  13. Kari Hansen says:

    I am the younger of two sisters and have two daughters myself. My sister and I played the roles of “good kid” (my sister) and “odd kid” (me) mostly consistently, and as was noted, it isn’t as obvious in two siblings, and it isn’t as apparent with my two yet as it would be with 3 or more, but it still is present.
    However, I have about 5 different friends that have 4 children each. And with every single one of them, it is their third that is the odd kid and the first is the good kid. So it makes me think that birth order can often play a part in this situation. When I talk to someone (in addition to my friends) with 4 kids I will often ask them if the third is the odd duck and they always say “yes!” and “how did you know?”

    • Joslyn says:

      I have a family of 4 cousins. One, two and four in birth order graduated top three in their high school class. Third in birth order was top 20% – in most other families that would have been awesome, but it made him feel a little isolated. The parents were both overachievers too.

  14. Sherry says:

    I was the classic good kid; and yes, I DID rebel in my 30’s from my parental expectations. Some of it was self-damaging, like getting really fat. Some of it was self-actualizing, as I went to pharmacy school and developed a mostly-satisfying career. Some of the rebellion has hung on: I am definitely a tree-hugging liberal for life, now. I like myself, and don’t live in fear of someone not loving me any more.

    My husband was the odd kid out; he is the second-born son in a family of three boys and one girl. He still carries the scars of having his parents frustrated w/ him so much when he was young. But he is a wonderful human being and father. Hubby’s only sister is the third child, so maybe that helped prevent the third-child issues for her, as she was admired and loved by all her brothers.

    I agree that birth order plays a role in who is the “good kid” or not.

  15. Like you I have four and there’s most definitely one who struggles with exactly what you said–finding her place. She doesn’t like her siblings, she argues everything, and yet, when she wants, she can be my most compassionate.

  16. J says:

    I can relate to being both the good kid and the odd, but it’s only recently I realised I was also the odd kid. I just don’t fit in with my family, and it becomes more noticeable to me the longer I live away from them. As a SAHM of two in my late twenties I definitely fear failure, but I think it’s a little less prominent than it would be if I were working.
    Congratulations on your book! What an accomplishment!

  17. Sarah Christy says:

    Love this discussion. I was the “good kid” middle child of three, oldest daughter with an older brother with learning disabilities. My mother, at 99, is still trying to compensate for him. I find the odd child out fascinating. One daughter has 3 kids, middle is odd out and to add fire to the flame, she is like the father.(whom our daughter divorced after abuse) Our family is made up of 4 living children (3 adopted). Because of the death of our son (odd) who was middle between two daughters (good), their birth order was somewhat displaced, then we adopted a baby boy so youngest became middle, eventually added in another boy, adopted at the age of 7 who was older than the youngest. (You get a “gold star” if you kept that straight 😉 Because every child came from a different genetic pool that added to the confusion.

  18. Jennifer N. says:

    Self-described “good kid” here. I’m smack dab in the middle of my 30’s and I gotta say, it’s been rough. Having two very “lively” boys at the same time that I’m coming to terms with and trying to manage my own issues has been exhausting. I previously realized I am far more motivated by fear than I ever thought, but it’s nice to have some framework for “why.” My brother (there were only two of us) was definitely the odd one out – neither one of my parents ever seemed to know quite what to do with him. They also never tried to accommodate him, which probably explains why he turned to drugs, alcohol, and other self-destructive habits in his teens and early 20’s. Thankfully, he’s much better now.

    I guess I’m happy to report that neither of my boys are what I would call “good kids”? While it certainly would be easier on me and my husband, I’ve come to terms with the fact that while they are a challenge now, they will be much better off as adults. Neither of them seem to be the odd one out, either. Of course everyone is a bit different and this may change as they get older.

  19. This is everything I needed to read right now. As the prototype good kid who has melted down as an adult more times than I care to admit, I have such a hard time relating to my odd kid out. Mine is the only boy between 2 sisters and his dramatic emotions make my girls look like robots. My husband and I regularly fall asleep discussing what we are doing right and wrong with him and how to help him find his place. Im learning more and more about myself everyday by parenting him. it’s super humbling.

  20. Kristin says:

    I really relate to this as I am the oldest “good kid” daughter of three. I strove to be perfect and still try my best to avoid failure. My brother is the middle and odd kid out. He struggled terribly to fit in, having only one childhood friend and only one friend in high school(the boyfriend of the childhood friend!). He was bullied by the boys who played sports, so he didn’t last long on any team. He preferred working alone and even made his living as a long-haul trucker for 10 yrs, until he finally decided to go back to college for a physical therapy assistant certificate. He still struggles with confidence and self-esteem, but it’s much better now that he’s happily married and heavily involved in their church. He once described his position in our family as being “a thorn between two roses”, myself and our younger sister who is the cute and hilarious baby of the family.

  21. Mary Kidwell says:

    Good kid here – and the youngest by far, so spent a ton of time alone with my parents after the others left. And yes, big ole breakdown in my late 20s, early 30s. At 52, I’m pretty well recovered now. My sister was also a good kid, and had completely different issues finding herself later. She was finding herself as a mother, which manifested in moving far away, not being very much in touch, and re-evaluating how our parents did everything (it’s a good thing – they’re lovely people, but had poor parenting skills). Our odd one out was seriously scarred by the poor parenting skills that mostly landed on him, and suffered for it all of his life, dying of AIDS at 37. I wish he’d been able to have a longer life.

  22. Erin says:

    Whoa, nailed it. I was (and still am) the good kid. To. the. T.

    Now I am in my mid twenties, I can see how much I operated out of fear of failure. I hardly ever put myself out there intentionally because I was afraid of rejection – unless I was confident in the context. If I struggled with a subject in school, I would keep it secret and try to learn it on my own to avoid admitting that I couldn’t do it. Perfectionism lives in me, but I have been doing better about being more aware of these tendencies and try to control them.

    When I first got married, I had a meltdown. I had an idea of the wife I wanted to be and when I couldn’t meet the standard (in my own eyes – not my husband’s), I was completely devastated. Quite the shock for my new husband! 😉

    The “good kid” nature still is strong in me, but as you said, awareness is key. Being aware allows me to approach situations, opportunities, and relationships better… less meltdowns, you know. 🙂

  23. Jess says:

    I am most definitely a “good” kid, and at 31, I’m struggling so much. I coasted through adolescence with ease academically speaking. Socially, I had a small bullying incident as well as that fear you mentioned. I’ve had anxiety almost my whole life. I would miss about 30 school days a year in grade/middle school due to stomach aches, (which coincidentally made me the “odd” kid to my peers and didn’t help my anxiety) and had several panic attacks in high school.
    As far as the actual breakdown, I think mine started in my 20s and is still happening. Once school started getting harder and I actually had to choose what to do with my life, I panicked and have floundered ever since. I put incredible amounts of pressure on myself about what I’m doing with my life, and the fact that I haven’t figured it out yet leads me to believe I am failing, and as you know, good kids don’t like to fail. 🙁

  24. Sydney says:

    Wow. This is striking and honestly a bit terrifying for me. I’m certainly a “good kid”, and have always been secretly proud of myself for causing my parents so little trouble. I’m 26 and have always looked forward to my thirties. For whatever reason I’ve always thought those would be my prime years. Now I’m worried about what lies ahead. Maybe my life has been too easy thus far… What kind of life meltdown are we talking about, here?

  25. Julie says:

    One lovely thing about these kinds of discussions is that you realize that YOU ARE NOT ALONE 🙂
    My husband and I are both “good kids” now raising three boys. Our oldest son is, bless his heart, odd in every way. We’re so accustomed to his ways, but when we’re out and about, it’s pretty obvious how different he is from peers. He is 9 and still not able or willing to read (getting help with that), and is as wild as the day is long. Like a previous commenter’s kids, he is adopted and also a different race than the rest of our family, which makes him visibly different to others. I feel like 99% of our parenting conversations are about him and his behavior. He’s in a constant state of breakdown, so maybe we’re getting all of that out of the way at the beginning of things.
    We had two SURPRISE! pregnancies, something we thought was impossible, so now we have a two year old and an infant, as well, so it’s like we’re starting all over.
    I see God’s hand in it all, though–for 7 years, our older “odd” son got the one-on-one attention that he needed.
    The two little ones have yet to display any “good” or “odd” tendencies, so WE’LL SEE 🙂

  26. Tiffany says:

    Reading the comments I’m seeing a pattern for the third child and I’m wondering how strongly birth order plays into all of this. My brother who is number three of four was our odd one. Odd for being he only boy with four sisters and for being in constant state of trouble until he was in his 30’s. We have three in our family and our third is a firecracker. I feel like a first time parent all over again. And not always a successful one at that!

  27. Steph says:

    This is really interesting- both the post and the amazingly honest comments! Do you have any resources for talking about personality and being self-aware with younger elementary school kids? Or how to parent with your kid’s personality in mind?

    • Emily says:

      I’m interested in this, too. My 7yo odd kid would probably love to assess her personality. And I’m kinda mystified by her, so it would probably really help me too!

  28. kim s. says:

    Oh my word, this could not be more accurate with my 4 daughters!

    My oldest & youngest are textbook “good” children: they sincerely want to make me happy and are naturally obedient.

    My middle two…well, they are both “odd ones out” but for different reasons. One is bossy, temperamental (explosive), with a huge heart buried deep inside. She is me, which makes her the odd one out with her sisters, but I totally get her. My other middle daughter is the “odd one out” from a parenting perspective. She’s a lefty, creative, sensitive, super-loving, craves affection, overly emotional, a social butterfly, etc. I do NOT get her, but she does better with her sisters (not the bossy one!). It makes me nuts trying to figure out why she acts the way she does and makes the choices she does.

    I was already anxiously awaiting your book, but if it will help me understand my girls better, I’m even more excited! 🙂 More than anything I want them to be confident in who God made them to be, and that’s my advice to newer parents too: every child is different; one parenting style will not work for all the same way; our job is to see the gifts God created uniquely in them in order to help them blossom. It’s taken me years to realize that just because all your kids don’t behave the same “perfect” way as the “good” ones, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure or bad parent. Honestly, I think we’re given those challenging children to help us truly understand unconditional love, how God loves us, as hard as it can be.

  29. Jamie says:

    Talking about ‘the good kid’ and how they basically raise themselves reminded me of a hilarious scene from the ‘Modern Family’ sitcom. The middle child – ‘the good kid’ – schedules a therapist appointment for herself and informs her parents of the date, time, cost, and location and how she would get herself there and back. When she walks out of the room, the father whispers in awe, “She’s like a self-cleaning oven!” As a former (and sometimes still struggling!) good kid, I had to laugh out loud at his perfectly ridiculous description.

  30. Liza says:

    I was the good kid in my family. Until I got pregnant my junior year of college.

    I have three kids and my middle is the odd duck. Not because we don’t understand him, but because he’s the extrovert in a family of introverts. He likes noise and makes a lot of noise (there’s a sound effect for everything) and the rest of us like calm and quiet. When we talk about each other’s quirks, a) we talk about EVERYONE’s quirks, not just one person, and b) I make sure to say that there’s nothing wrong with how you are; it’s just the truth. This is you. And that’s fine. Although sometimes, I do have to tell him to just shut up already because my introvert brain can’t handle any more noise. 🙂

  31. Molly says:

    Wow, thank you for this! This totally resonated with me and I know it will stick with me as a parent of two kiddos with very different personalities! I definitely have a “good kid” and an odd but sweet little duck!

  32. Ashley says:

    I would absolutely LOVE to see hear of any personality tests designed specifically for children. Most of the ones that I see say that it only really works with adults who have fully come into their personalities, which is great for me, but unhelpful when I have four kids who are nine and under. I have an odd duck and a good kid and two neutrals, so I would love to be able to give all of them some insight to themselves.

  33. Nicky H says:

    Oh wow! Heyy I just started reading your blog and I’m a teen so…. yes… I think I could relate to the ‘good kid’ part. I am afraid of how other people may perceive me sometimes and afraid of failure. And due to all this, I become a people pleaser.

    Are there ways I could get out of the good kid problem? :p

    Also, THANKS FOR THIS ARTICLE. IT HELPED ME TO BECOME MORE SELF-AWARE.

    • Megan says:

      I’m a people pleaser in my early 30s and work with students who are both starting in their careers and changing careers. The most successful ones are the ones who take risks. I think that’s important to start early so that you get used to it while you still have a good safety net. Audition for the play if you’re nervous about being in front of people, learn a new skill, practice getting out an meeting new people!

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