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When the discipline of psychology was first being pioneered, most psychologists believed that every individual entered the world as a tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” that was shaped by the environment around them. Yet, for most parents, this view doesn’t jive with their own experience raising children. Indeed, even in the first few months of parenthood, you probably made some observations about your new infant’s personality. Maybe you noticed that they were a very happy baby who loved to be around people. Or perhaps you observed that they would often sit quietly and study all that was going on around them. If you have more than one child, you undoubtedly have seen differences in your children from the beginning, maybe even when they were still in the womb.
Nowadays, psychologists recognize that individuals are not blank slates merely shaped by their environment but instead come into this world with unique traits and characteristics that influence how they interact with the world. These individual differences in your baby’s activity, emotional responses, and attention to the environment are part of what developmental researchers refer to as “temperament.” Every individual has a unique set of characteristics that comprises their temperament, which is thought to be based in genetic differences and form the building blocks of later personality. Different researchers have emphasized different traits in their own theories of temperament, but some of the most common ones are:
● Activity level. Does your baby or child like to constantly be moving or can they sit quietly for extended periods of time?
● Negative emotionality. Does your baby or child become easily frustrated or have many fears and worries?
● Positive emotionality. Does your baby or child frequently giggle and laugh, or are they more serious?
● Adaptability. Is your child calm and easy-going when there are changes in their schedule or environment, or do they become distressed at even slight differences in routine?
● Inhibition versus approach. Is your child cautious of strangers or new things, like a new loud toy, or do they become excited and readily approach new people or things?
● Persistence. Does your child keep trying even after struggling with an activity (for example, trying to find the matching hole for a particular shape) or do they quickly give up?
Researchers have found that different types of traits tend to hang together into different profiles of traits. For example, “exuberant” children are highly active, easily excitable and happy, and approach new people and things with ease. “Slow-to-warm-up” individuals show lower activity levels, are more inhibited and need time to adjust to changes in their environment or routine.
Different temperament traits have also been tied to different outcomes later in childhood and as adults. Inhibited children may be more introverted and shy. But some research also suggests that they have better problem-solving and academic skills. Children high in approach and activity levels tend to be more extraverted and favour sports and other active pursuits. However, they may also be more likely to act out when frustrated.
Child temperament traits are neither good nor bad. Instead, they each come with their own unique rewards and challenges. The key to harnessing your child’s strengths is in matching your parenting style to your own child’s individual temperament and needs, something developmental researchers refer to as “goodness of fit.” In a future blog post, I’ll be talking more about how you can make your own parenting style match your child’s individual temperament.
About the Author:
Rochelle Hentges, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary.