Thinking About Temperament Makes You a Better Parent


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My daughter taught me something about temperament in the first minute of her life.

She was born on Thanksgiving Day, with meconium stuck in her throat. Meconium is a goopy material that can prevent children from breathing. It obviously needs to be removed quickly.

The doctors pushed an alarm button in the delivery room to call in a specialist to help suction it out. But before the specialist arrived, my daughter spat the meconium out all on her own. She really let it fly! Her first breath was a cry of defiance.

The specialist arrived a moment later, surprised and impressed. “That doesn’t usually happen,” she said. “You’ve got a live one here!”

Seventeen years later, I regularly utter those words under my breath. “We’ve got a live one here.” Just as in the first minute of her life, my daughter is energetic, intense, and persistent as a teenager. While these traits made her challenging as a baby, they serve her well at age 17 as she tackles new challenges and seeks out new experiences.

Temperament is innate

Temperament is a person’s innate emotional and social style. As every parent knows, babies are born with unique temperaments. Some are calm and rarely cry; others are fussy and demand constant attention. Some have a sunny disposition and are quick to warm up to new people. Others are slow to respond to positive stimulation and are naturally fearful of strangers.

One way to think of temperament is that it is the way your core emotional system is naturally biased. I have a natural tendency toward shyness, and as I child I was moderately fearful of meeting new people. I have mostly overcome that fear, but the underlying inhibition — part of my temperament — is still there and always will be.

My child is “this way” and I’m “that way”

Temperament traits are neither good nor bad. As Mary Gordon, author of Roots of Empathy, writes, the child who is hard to distract “can be tough for parents to manage, but when he grows up he’ll be the one who can get things done despite a noisy classroom or a chaotic work environment.” The child who is slow to adapt to changes in her environment “can develop into a strong-willed person who has the courage of her convictions and is not easily swayed by the persuasions of others.”1

Understanding your child’s temperament helps you recognize and accept your child the way they are. It also helps you help your child manage challenges that can arise because of her temperament. For example, my energetic and persistent daughter sometimes benefits from a little help recognizing that she can’t do everything she wants to do; she has to make choices.

In addition, the more aware you are of temperamental differences between yourself and your child, the better you will be at relating to and communicating with them. You can head off conflict that might otherwise arise when you can recognize and say to yourself, “My child is this way and I’m that way.”

Do This One Thing

A simple way to think about your child’s temperament is to consider how they react to unfamiliar or challenging situations. Is your child inhibited, meaning they are reserved and vigilant in unfamiliar situations? Or are they easygoing and social when meeting new people and encountering new environments?

Consider how you and your child are the same or different in this regard.

Extra Credit

You can think about temperament in more dimensions. For example, consider these five:2

  1. Activity level. Is your child more energetic or more mellow? Highly active children are always on the move. Less active children prefer reading a book to running around.
  2. Intensity. How strongly does your child respond to situations, regardless of whether the response is positive or negative? For an intense child, the joys are especially high and the disappointments hit really hard.
  3. First reaction. How does your child respond to new people and situations? Do they play with unfamiliar children in the pediatrician’s waiting room, or do they hide behind your leg? How willing are they to try new foods?
  4. Frustration reaction/persistence. How does your child react to situations that challenge them? Learning to walk, did they stick with it even when confronting wobbly legs and slippery floors? Or did your child prefer to continue crawling until their legs got stronger?
  5. Distractibility. How easily is your child distracted from what they are currently doing? When he was a baby, could you redirect them with a toy when they started crawling toward the electrical outlet? Or were they determined, no matter what, to pull that plug out of the wall?

Consider how you are temperamentally similar or different from your child on these five dimensions. Thinking about temperament will help you better understand and communicate with your child.

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Thinking About Temperament Makes You a Better Parent
  1. Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy, p. 91.
  2. Gordon, pp. 85–91.