Parenting Your Child's Temperament: Part One
by Andrea Elovson, BabyZone.com
Learning to understand and accept your child's temperament can dramatically impact how each trait will manifest itself.
One of my mother's favorite stories recounts a family trip to Sea World when I was four, and my brother was two and a half. We were walking through the park when suddenly, we were approached by a man dressed in a penguin costume. I jumped behind my mother and hid my face in the folds of her skirt. In the same instant, my brother zoomed forward with his arms outstretched for a hug.
My brother and I were raised by the same parents, in the same household. We both inherited my mother's brown eyes and my father's chin. So why did we have such dissimilar reactions to that penguin?
According to Dr. William B. Carey M.D., the reason is likely due to differences in our temperaments. Carey is an attending physician in the division of General Pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Much of the information in this article comes from Carey's best selling book Understanding Your Child's Temperament.
What Is Temperament?
All children are born with a combination of in-born traits that determine how they react to the world around them. Although "temperament" and "personality" are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.
"Personality is the totality of the human being," says Carey. "It describes how bright you are, what you are interested in, what you are capable of doing. Temperament has nothing to do with abilities or how well adjusted you are. It is the style with which you approach the world."
Understanding a child's true temperament can help parents solve a host of issues including temper tantrums, power struggles and problems at school. More often than not, a child's "bad" behavior stems from incongruities between their personal style and their environment. With a few simple modifications, parents can formulate an approach that minimizes conflict and maximizes a child's chances of social and academic success.
The Nine Temperament Traits
In the late 1950's, two researchers, Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, began collecting data for The New York Longitudinal Study. Chess and Thomas studied over two hundred children from infancy to age eight and identified nine in-born traits. The degree to which your child manifests each of these nine traits determines their overall temperament.
How active is your child? Is he always on-the-go or is he more likely to sit quietly and move at a moderate pace?
Does your child eat, sleep, or have bodily functions (i.e. bowel movements) at predictable times of day, or does there seem to be little rhyme or reason to when they occur?
Approach or Withdrawal
How eager is your child to jump into new activities and to meet new people? Does she tend to hang back or run towards strange men dressed as penguins?
Does your child adapt easily and quickly to changes in his environment, or do disruptions to her daily routine upset him?
Threshold of Responsiveness
How sensitive is your child to tastes, textures, light, smells, or sounds? Can she hear a pin dropping in Africa or is she unfazed by the rumbling of a jumbo jet?
Intensity of Reaction
In general, how strongly does your child react to positive or negative experiences? Does a scraped knee send him into hysterics or does she tend to cry a bit, dust himself off and keep going?
Is you child easily distracted by things going on around her or can she shut out intrusive stimuli and stay focused?
Attention Span and Persistence
Can your child stick with a task or does he tend to give up or lose interest quickly? Does he have difficulty switching from one activity to another, or can he stop what he's doing relatively easily?
Quality of Mood
Is your child generally happy and even-tempered or does her mood seem to shift frequently?
From these nine traits, Thomas and Chess devised three categories, which they say describe approximately 65% of all children.
o Easy or Flexible (40%): These kids are considered "easy going". They demonstrate a steady, optimistic view of the world and are not deeply bothered by meeting new people or changes in their daily routine. Their bodily rhythms are largely predictable and they tend to not "overreact" to negative events or disruptive stimuli.
o Active, Difficult, or Feisty (10%): Children in this category are frequently labeled "fussy" or "a handful." They tend to have irregular feeding and sleeping patterns, are resistant to change and fearful of new people. They are quite sensitive to noise, light, and commotion and react intensely to things that disturb them.
o Slow to Warm or Cautious (15%): Dominant traits include relative inactivity, fussiness and fear of new people and situations. With gradual exposure, these children tend to warm up and become increasingly comfortable with the people and situations that caused them initial distress.
A Word of Caution!
Although learning to distinguish temperamental traits will ultimately help you understand and work with your child's temperament, it is important to note that over a third (35%) of the children in Chess and Thomas' study did not fit neatly into any of the three groups. If you are confounded by your child's behavior, you might be tempted to assign them to one of these categories and say, "So that's why she acts this way, she's difficult." Doing this might initially assuage your confusion, but it can also cause you to misread or inadvertently ignore your child's needs.
Labeling your child is also hurtful and counterproductive. Calling your child "difficult," "shy" or even "easy going" makes it hard for them to see themselves as anything else. Distilling the totality of a child down to a single adjective is like describing a smooth, gooey chocolate ice cream cone as "cold."
What Makes Your Child Tick?
Collecting accurate information about your child's temperament takes time. Carey suggests watching your child over the course of four to six weeks. Keep a notebook on hand to jot down what you see. If you are at work for much of the day, let your childcare provider know what you are doing. Although they are unlikely to have the time to take notes, they can provide important insight.
When you are with your children, observe them in a variety of situations at different times of day; eating, playing with friends, watching television, doing their homework and, if possible, while they sleep. Try not to focus only on the behaviors that bother you. Adopt a neutral, non-judgmental stance that includes your child's positive, joyful reactions.
Some temperamental traits are easier to spot than others. "Approach/Withdrawal" or how your child reacts to new penguins…I mean people… is relatively obvious. "Quality of Mood", however, can be less clear-cut since fatigue, hunger, or illness can temporarily affect one's disposition. If you are unsure about a particular trait, keep watching. Over time, patterns will emerge. After a few weeks, you should have a much clearer picture of your child's true temperament.
Is Temperament Genetic?
Despite a growing body of research, there is no definitive answer to why children are endowed with certain temperamental traits. But studies suggest that it is at least partially genetic. This does not mean that two shy parents are destined to have shy children, or if you have trouble finishing tasks your child will too. In fact, researchers have no definite way of predicting a child's temperament based on that of their parents (siblings, even identical twins, can have very different temperaments).
At What Age Can I Determine My Child's Temperament?
There is some debate about how early a parent can detect a child's temperament. Carey and his colleagues designed five sets of questionnaires for parents, including one for infants between the ages of one and four months old. They found that the nine traits identified by Thomas and Chess were discernable in this very early period. But they have yet to determine how stable these traits remain over a child's lifetime.
Kathy Oliver M.S., Family and Consumer Sciences Agent at Ohio State University Extension, says that some traits, including rhythmicity, distractibility, and activity level are evident in the first few weeks.
"I nursed both my babies," says Oliver. "And there was a big difference in how distractible they were. When my son was at the breast that is where he was. With my daughter, any little movement or noise would cause her to wriggle and look around. She is still that way and she is thirteen now."
Does this mean that if your infant seems highly distractible he will inevitably face problems in school? Or if you cannot set your watch by your newborn's bowel movements you are destined to raise a "difficult" child? Absolutely not.
Although temperament is inborn and at least partially genetic, it is not static. How well a parent understands and accepts their child's temperament can have a dramatic impact on how each trait will manifest itself.
Dr. Carey's previously mentioned book, Understanding Your Child's Temperament, contains a detailed section on how to manage the distinctive character traits your child may display. Look for a sequel to this article on how to achieve "goodness of fit" between your child's temperament and your parenting style, and how to create effective parenting styles to achieve optimal harmony in your home.
About the Author
Andrea Elovson is a documentary filmmaker and television producer living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared on several national media outlets. Her son, Alden Thomas Spratt, was born on June 6, 2003. She and her husband are exhausted but enjoying him a lot!