The Importance of Understanding Temperament in Raising Children

Dr. Sam Goldstein

I recently had the opportunity to spend five days with my wife vacationing on a sunny beach in Mexico.  Now that my children are grown-up, vacations afford me many opportunities to observe children and their parents.  On our second day, I sat on the beach and had the opportunity to watch two, very different three-year-olds.  Their patterns of behavior and the responses of their parents reminded me of the critically important task parents face to understand and accept their children’s temperaments.  

The little, dark-eyed, dark-haired boy ran up and down the beach, stopping and babbling in Italian to everyone who walked along.  I am not certain that people  understood him but many answered back in a variety of languages.  He wore those inflatable “floaties” on his arms. He periodically would run into the water up to his knees, jump up and down and then run back to the beach as small waves broke along the shore.  I looked for his parents and eventually noticed they were sitting a bit further back on the beach.  Far enough away that it was not readily discernable that he was with them but not so far that they couldn’t continue to watch him.  At one point he ran out along an inflated pontoon that had been placed along the waters edge in an effort to recapture some of the beach lost from a recent hurricane.  This inflated pontoon was quite wide and extended some ten feet out into the water.  I wondered if his parents would come after him or call to him as he ventured out on this pontoon. I turned to watch.  They watched him but said nothing.  He ran along the pontoon, stopped at one point and looked into the water.  I thought he was going to jump but then he must have thought otherwise and ran back onto the beach.  At a later point I watched this adventuresome child with his father frolicking in the water.  His parents’ patience and acceptance of his exploratory, vivacious and outgoing temperament allowed him to learn about the world without being smothered by a worried, over-protective parent as might have been the case for such a child with some parents.  

At the same time a bit further up the beach, a cute, blond haired three-year-old stood holding her mother’s hand. From the accent of her parents, I decided they were from the British Isles.  This little girl wasn’t very convinced that the beach and ocean fun.  She hesitated to walk to the water’s edge.  Though she took her mother’s hand and touched the edge of the water with her toes, she quickly pulled away and ran back to the middle of a blanket.  I wondered how her parents might respond. To my pleasure they didn’t admonish, criticize or force her back to the water.  They talked to her about doing new things.  They patiently brought her back to the water’s edge again and again until she eventually walked into the water with them up to her knees before again pulling away.  I was impressed by their patience and willingness to accept this girl’s shy, slow to warm up temperament.

As my dear friend and co-author, Dr. Robert Brooks, and I have written in many of our volumes, all parents share a basic goal for their children.  We want our children to possess the inner strength to deal competently and successfully day after day with the challenges and demands they encounter. We wish happiness, success in school, satisfaction in their lives and solid friendships for them.  In our writing and presentations about resilience, we have repeatedly pointed out that for parents to experience success in raising their children they must accept children for who they are and not necessarily what they want them to be.  We have written that we must love and accept our children unconditionally. We have encouraged parents to accept children in part by fostering an understanding and appreciation of their temperament.  

It is of interest to note that the word temperament finds its origin from the Latin temperamentum or “correct mixture.”  Temperament consists of the inborn qualities that children bring to the world.  Just as children possess different physical and cognitive features, they also possess different temperaments.  These inborn qualities determine how children will respond to the world and in many ways shape and influence the way the world responds to them.  Temperament impacts children’s style of learning, their strengths and vulnerabilities. Each child’s temperament is unique although researchers have identified certain patterns of temperament that appear to present consistently in some groups of children. Some children are typically easy and delightful to raise.  As children with easy temperament grow and mature, parents experience their role as caretakers with pleasure and satisfaction.  Although being blessed with an easy temperament does not guarantee success, children with such a temperamental style, regardless of their other abilities, typically have an easier time relating to others, developing friendships, functioning at school and coping with adversity.  

Some children are slow to warm up.  They require additional time to acclimate to new situations.  They are shy or cautious.  They display a certain hesitancy when confronted with new situations.  In our book, Raising Resilient Children, Dr. Brooks and I pointed out that these children are likely to remain physically close and hold on to a parent when entering a store with which they are not familiar.  The little girl I just described on the beachl clearly possessed a slow to warm up temperament.  Such children are apt to be fearful of strangers and new activities.  They can be anxious in social situations and may spend time watching others handle situations before undertaking it themselves.  Such children also are rarely risk takers.  Because of their low emotional threshold in the face of even minor stresses, these children are prone to experience anxiety and worry in many situations.

Some children are much more outgoing and adventuresome.  As the little boy I described, they are not only easy going in their temperaments but they are independent and love to take on new activities and explore new challenges. When their parents understand this process, this style of temperament works to the child’s advantage. When parents do not, they may become overly protective leading to conflicts.

Finally, as we have written many times before, some children’s temperament is simply difficult.   These children are a challenge for even the best parents.  They may be moody or intense in their reactions.  They may overreact to many situations.  They may experience little pleasure, struggle developing consistent sleep and eating habits, can be impulsive, inattentive and at times insatiable.

In our first joint book, Raising Resilient Children, Dr. Brooks and I described four steps to help parents understand and accept the child’s temperament. It is worth re-visiting these steps.

Step 1: Become Educated

If you are unable to understand and/or accept your child’s innate temperament, you are likely to expect behaviors from your children for which they are incapable.  In such circumstances your child’s inability to accomplish certain tasks will be interpreted as willful or manipulative and your response will be punitive.  There are many good resources about children’s temperament.  Among my favorites are Dr. William Carey’s book, Understanding Your Child’s Temperament (Xlibris Corporation), Jan Kristal’s book, The Temperament Perspective (Brookes Publishing) and an older book by Helen Nevell and colleagues, Temperament Tools (Parenting Press).  

Step 2: Measure Your Mindset

It is important to be aware of your mindset.  What do you expect from your children?  How do you respond when they don’t meet those expectations? What kind of parent did you promise yourself you would be?  What kind of parent are you currently?   Take a measure of your mindset.  Consider the behaviors and feelings you hope to view in your child and then consider the behaviors and feelings that have emerged. In some cases what you have hoped for and what you observe may be similar.  But in others you may discover large differences.  You may have expected an outgoing, spirited child but perceive your child as shy and quick to be unhappy.  Consider how you thought you would respond and react to your child.  Consider how you actually respond and then decide how you want to respond.

Step 3:  Make Necessary Adjustments  

If there is a good match between your expectations and what your children can do, then you don’t need to proceed any further.  When our children behave in ways that match our expectations, it is easy for us to feel good and accept them.  On the other hand, if there is a mismatch you must initiate the change. I am not suggesting that you give up your dreams and wishes for your children, however, I am encouraging you to not allow your dreams to foster unrealistic expectations leading you to the perception of false hopes and broken promises.  It is important to step back and modify your expectations relative to what is realistic for your children to do.   It is important to separate our dreams for our children from who they are as individuals.

Step 4:  Begin the Process of Collaboration

The responsibility for closing the gap between your dreams for your children and reality falls on your shoulders. But it is equally important for you to work with your child.  While the previous step emphasized the need for you to initiate changes, your children shouldn’t be bystanders.  Once you have come to a level of acceptance of your children for who they are, have gained a clear picture of their child’s unique temperament and style and begin to make changes in your relationship, it will be easier for you to engage with your children in problem solving discussions of appropriate goals and expectations.

British politician and author, Benjamin Disraeli, once wrote that a person’s fate is their own temperament.  However, I also believe that biology is not destiny. As with the example of the two children on the beach, parents can and do play a powerful role in helping their children find happiness, joy and success in life.  This process is enhanced when parents understand and work with each child’s unique temperament.