Temperament: Why Children Can Be So Different

November 2, 2020, 10:07 am | Mackenzie DeJong

quiet child and outgoing child by jbrown/stock.adobe.com.AMES, Iowa – Imagine two children from the same family: One child is loud, outgoing and always on the run, while the other is content to sit and read a book, likes to stick to a schedule and is usually quiet. If these two kids grow up in the same environment, how can they be so different?

In most cases, the answer is temperament, said Mackenzie DeJong, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“Temperament is the genetic, inborn trait that we receive and show from birth – and sometimes, with active babies, in pregnancy. We can tell the intensity of a child from their cries in the nursery. Temperament comes before personality, before environment, before life experiences. Temperament is our genetic ‘set point’ that we will work from for the rest of our lives,” said DeJong, who specializes in family life issues.

Although there have been many studies of temperament, researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, who conducted the New York Longitudinal Study of childhood personality and temperament development, originally studied temperament based on nine traits, DeJong said.

  • Activity: What is your natural energy level? Are you content to sit around or are you always needing to go for a run?
  • Adaptability: How quickly can you adjust from one activity to the next or one idea to the next? Does it take some time to process a decision, or do you say “yes” right away?
  • Approaching/Withdrawing: Do you jump feet first into a new situation or stand back and observe first?
  • Distractibility: Distractible people tend to notice more around them, like the deer in the field, while less distractible people can focus on the task at hand without noticing little things are happening around them.
  • Intensity: How do you feel emotions? Are your feelings big and loud or soft and quiet?
  • Mood: Is your emotional “set point” typically negative or positive?
  • Persistence: How likely are you to keep to a task or come back to it if it isn’t finished? The highly persistent person will sit for hours upon hours to complete a task, while a less persistent person may leave the task, decide it is unimportant and never return.
  • Regularity: Does your body clock align with the hands of a clock, or are your basic body functions (eat, sleep, eliminate) less predictable?
  • Sensitivity: How deeply do you feel the five senses? A highly sensitive person may be extra aware of the smell of something burning, the itch of a fabric or the heat of a room.

Through observation, temperament experts have started to put these nine traits into three patterns, DeJong said. These patterns are called different things by different experts, but all fall together as follows:

  • You might hear the first pattern referred to as inhibited, slow to warm, or most often, shy. This pattern reflects a child who is quieter and more likely to stand back and assess a situation before diving in. Often these children struggle with the first day of kindergarten or a new environment because they aren’t sure what is going to come next. According to Robert J. Coplan, a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, parents of a slow-to-warm child can help their child by giving them time to “stand on the sidelines” before going into something, tell other adults that their child just needs a few minutes instead of saying they are shy, and encourage them that they can do something, possibly taking baby steps, even if they are scared.
  • The second pattern is most widely known as spirited, a term coined by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, an internationally recognized lecturer and parent educator. Some label these children as feisty, difficult or strong willed. You’ll notice spirited children when you see them. These are the people who feel loudly, may be more distractible and can be highly persistent. These children need parents to give them space to run and find tactics to feel their feelings in a productive, rather than disruptive way. It’s also important for parents to celebrate a spirited child for their tenacity and leadership.
  • The final and least discussed pattern is the flexible child. These children were easy babies who would “go with the flow” and rarely cause a disruption. The thing to remember about flexible children is that sometimes we can forget to talk about them, or we forget to encourage them, lift them up or worry about their struggles. It’s just as important that a flexible child’s voice is heard as the spirited or slow-to-warm child.

The Science of Parenting team, a group of human sciences specialists with ISU Extension and Outreach, is currently producing a podcast all about temperament. You can find episodes on every trait, the three patterns and special temperament-related topics by visiting scienceofparenting.org or find us on social media @scienceofparent.

Photo credit: jbrown/stock.adobe.com

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