Most parents recognize that some children are easier to parent than others. What some parents don’t realize is that one of the underlying reasons for these differences is the inborn temperament of each child.
“He is just the sweetest, easiest baby! I don’t know why other parents struggle to get their kids to sleep.”
“She’s so belligerent! It isn’t just the terrible twos! It feels terrible all the time!”
“He is just so shy. No matter where we go, he hides behind me and it seems to take forever for him to engage with other children.”
Each of these comments may reflect a child’s temperament. When parents better understand the concept of temperament and specifically the temperamental traits of each of their children, they can be more accepting of difficult behaviors and less critical of other children who are not as easy as theirs should they be blessed with a child with an easy temperament.
What is Temperament?
The term “temperament” is not synonymous with “personality” but refers to one aspect of a child’s personality. It is the behavioral style or manner of the child. Temperament is differentiated from other personality characteristics such as motivation and ability. Temperament answers the question, “HOW does a child behave or express themself?”
An example may help illustrate this distinction. Two children are learning a new sport. They are the same age, similar in their physical and intellectual abilities and in their motivation to participate and learn, but they are very different temperamentally. One child may seem to be in constant motion while the other quietly observes. One may approach new experiences eagerly, happily looking forward to meeting new children and readily trying new tasks. The other child may be reserved with new people, cautious about new activities and may have a serious demeanor. They may be dissimilar in the degree to which the noises and activities of others on the field distract them, and the ease with which they switch from one activity to another.While both may come to understand and play the game equally well, they will probably each get there in their own unique way.
Temperament traits are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. Like height, weight or intelligence, they are inborn characteristics of the child.
Temperament traits also fall along continuums for each individual. Typically, a child is neither totally active nor passive, persistent nor non-persistent, approaching nor withdrawing, etc., and most fall somewhere in between these end points.
Ten Temperament Continuums
The following is a list of the ten temperament categories developed by researchers Chess, Thomas and Birch (first conducted in 1957 and repeated many times since then) and their definitions:
- Activity Level: amount of physical motion during activities
- Regularity: predictability of biological functions (ex. sleeping, eating, eliminating
- Approach or Withdrawal: initial reaction to new people, places, things, activities
- Adaptability: response to changes in a situation, schedule, routine – ease of “switching gears”
- Sensory Threshold: sensitivity to sound, touch, taste, lights, etc.
- Intensity of Reaction: strength of response, positive or negative
- Quality of Mood: general affect or emotional approach
- Distractibility: effectiveness of external stimuli in interfering with ongoing behavior
- Attention Span and Persistence: length of time with an activity; ability to continue despite obstacles or interruptions
- Emotional Sensitivity: sensitivity to the emotions of others or ourselves
As you read through these 10 categories that describe the various continuums of temperament, did they help you better understand the inborn nature of your child? Often parents are reassured by this information because they can better understand that neither their child nor they intentionally choose to behave in certain ways.
In my next blog I will share some information about the three broad categories of temperament and what goodness of fit involves. Stay tuned!
Invitation for Reflection
- Were there any specific temperamental traits that jumped out for you as clearly something your child exhibits?
- How do you feel about learning this information? Does it change anything in your attitudes towards your child?
- If you have more than one child, how does knowing that each one has their own inborn traits that may be very different from what another child has impact your attitudes towards each child? Does it help you appreciate the unique nature of each child?