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Appreciating Temperament Part 3: Goodness of Fit

In my last two blogs I first invited readers to explore the idea of temperament, its definition and the 10 continuums on which it is measured in children. Next we learned about the three main constellations of temperament:  the easy child, the slow-to-warm child and the difficult child. 

Learning about temperament and especially considering the temperament of each child to better understand behavior can equip parents with knowledge that allows them to appreciate why their child behaves in certain ways and what they might need to cope.

In this blog readers can learn about the concept of goodness-of-fit and how it influences how parents relate to their children.

Parents and caregivers may have a natural tendency to place greater value on certain temperamental characteristics. The value system of a family of sports enthusiasts might lead them to respect and admire the traits of an active and athletic child and dislike those of a child who is physically more passive. However, that same active child might be viewed negatively in a family that values being reserved, quiet and cautious. Where there is a “misfit” between parents’ values and expectations and a child’s temperament traits, it can be difficult for both parent and child to accept one another. Thomas and Chess termed this child-environment interaction “goodness-of-fit” or “poorness-of-fit.”

Goodness-of-fit between a child and their environment occurs when the demands and expectations they encounter are consistent with their temperamental characteristics and capacities. This good fit usually results in healthy emotional development and functioning.  Poorness-of-fit can lead to excessive stress for the child and possibly the development of behavioral problems.

“Difficult” children are at risk of suffering stress and developing problems due to their temperaments. They are often at odds with the demands and expectations of their family, school or social environments. Other children who have been found to be at greater risk are slow-to-warm children who are pressured to adapt quickly, highly active or highly passive children, children with high persistence leading to negative, “locked-in” behaviors and those children who are highly distractible.

While it seems safe to say that variations in temperament traits are universally found, goodness of fit is influenced by cultural expectations. Difficult children were identified in rural India, but in their environment there is little stress placed on a child who shows withdrawal from new stimuli and poor adaptability because there is little chance of the child meeting a stranger in their village, and exposure to novel stimuli or experiences is limited.

Likewise, the child’s irregularity is not a problem where schedules are basically nonexistent. Interestingly, difficult infants in draught and famine ravaged East Africa were found to have a greater survival rate than easy ones, most likely because they fussed more and were fed to be quieted. In the United States, high distractibility is particularly difficult for school-age children since our achievement-oriented society puts pressure on children to concentrate and stay focused in class, do homework, and take part in structured activities.

Goodness-of-fit is also influenced by parents’ and caregivers’ own temperaments, and it is helpful to recognize one’s own temperamental characteristics. How a parent interacts with a child is affected by both their temperaments and can either negatively or positively modify a child’s temperament. Highly active parents may not even be aware of the high activity level of their child. Parents who themselves are highly distractible might find the normal busyness and noise of young children to be frustrating because it distracts them from accomplishing their goals.

Those who interact with parents can help them appreciate that the goal is not to change the child’s temperament but to minimize stress and develop coping strategies. A child who is highly active may learn to sit quietly as long as they can tap their foot, fidget, play with something or otherwise be moving. The highly distractible child may learn to seek out quiet places whenever a task requires focused concentration, therefore lessening their distractions. A child who is slow to adapt may learn that they feel more comfortable in new surroundings when they arrive early or visit briefly, before being expected to stay for an extended time.

With good coping strategies, this child may appear to have outgrown their slow adaptability, and both parent and child may be surprised when the tendency reappears at a later life change, such as starting a new school. Some strategies for modifying or managing temperament traits can be taught by parents; some a child will have to discover for themselves.

By understanding that temperament and other unique qualities are inborn, parents are freer to appreciate and accept each child for who they are. It is important to realize that no one, neither the parent nor the child, is to blame for those traits that are difficult, nor can parents take credit for those traits that make life more simple with an easier child. By learning to understand and accept each child’s uniqueness, parents can support and nurture each child’s unique gifts, talents and temperament.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. In what ways did the information about goodness-of-fit help you better understand why your children behave as they do?
  2. Consider how you can blend what you’ve learned in this blog with the previous two. How does this information help inform ways you relate to each child in your life?
  3. What in this information might you share with your children? Are there others in your life who would benefit from learning about temperament?

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