I’ve often wondered how my husband and I created two children (both boys), born within 20 months of each other, who are so incredibly different. One is neat, the other messy, one loves to joke around, the other is quite serious. Even their art was divergent. They were only one grade apart in school and often came home after the same art lesson with two very different versions of the same project. I always had a chuckle about how their artwork reflected their personalities.
The reality is that children are born with very set temperaments or personalities. Some are easier to parent than others. Many times children have the same temperament as their parent or parents and many times they do not. Understanding your child’s temperament will help you (and your nerves) as you work to parent your child.
There are lots of different theories about personality and temperament. I’m going to outline the nine characteristics that were studied by Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas. Hopefully by looking a little closer at these characteristics will help you understand your child a little better. This new consciousness about your child can help you be a little more intentional as you do the very difficult job of being a parent!
- Activity Level – the level of motor activity in each individual. If you have a child with a high activity level you know it! These are the kiddos who don’t sit still very well, who love to run (everywhere), jump, roll, and generally cavort most of the time. They love to be outside and have a difficult time sitting for books or group lessons. Low activity children generally love to sit for stories or art projects and often don’t enjoy the great outdoors.
- Rhythmicity – the predictability of biological functions (hunger, thirst, sleep, bowel movements). Children with unpredictable rhythmicity will benefit from regular routines.
- Initial Response – the way a child responds to a novel situation or stimulus (new people, new school, new food, etc.) Learning to recognize your child’s unique cues (facial expressions, speech, crying, etc.) will help you respond in nurturing ways. Some children will need more support when faced with new situations while others won’t give you a second thought while they run off with a new friend.
- Adaptability – reaction to new situations over time, the ability to adjust and change. Some children need a lot of time before they adjust to a new food or new teacher. For others they happily adjust after one or two tastes of something new.
- Sensory Threshold – the level of sensitivity to sensory input. Waking at the slightest noise, sleeping through a thunderstorm; being bothered by a tag, refusing to play with play doh or to paint, loving to get messy, only liking room temperature foods. These are all different ways children can be more or less sensitive to sensory input.
- Quality of Mood – the way we react to life – a sunny disposition or finding fault with everything and everybody. If you have a child who tends toward the dark side of mood remember that this isn’t because of anything you did! Honor your child’s negative feelings and model ways of looking on the bright side.
- Intensity of Reaction – the way a child responds to situations around them. The school bell is right outside my classroom. When it rings (which it has done every day for 8 months) some students shout and throw themselves to the ground while others just continue working on their current activity. At this point in the year I don’t even respond, we just accept that each child needs to react in his or her own way and we get on with our day.
- Distractibility – the way an outside stimulus interferes with present behavior and willingness to be diverted. For some children distractions, whether large or small (hunger, a new person entering the classroom, the phone ringing) will divert their attention from the task at hand and they will not be able to get back to work easily or at all.
- Persistence and Attention Span – persistence is the willingness to continue working on an activity in the face of difficulty and attention span refers to the length of time one is able to focus on an activity.These two traits often go hand in hand. Children who have difficulty with these may need additional help and care to learn to build these traits.
We can all look at the above list and pick and choose the traits we would find more convenient to parent. It is important to understand that none of the above is good vs. bad. What is important is to recognize the type of temperament your child exhibits (and to think about your own, as well!) so you can pick and choose the best parenting tools that will work with the child you’ve got. It’s also important to remember that as parents we are working on improvement, not perfection. Using kindness and firmness with children of all temperaments will serve you and your child well. Kindness respects the child for who she is and firmness respects the needs of the situation. In this way you will help your child become a capable, confident, contented person.
But I didn’t say it would be easy!