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Temperamental Differences in Children

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There is an ongoing debate among psychologists as to which human traits are inborn and which are learned. Over the years there has been a swing from nature to nurture and back again, in keeping with new research findings. Today it is generally accepted that it is not an either or, simply that some traits are more inborn than learned while the reverse is true for others. A number of years ago pediatricians Thomas and Chess (1967) observed temperamental differences in infants that seemed to persist at least through the early childhood years. Additional research has confirmed the validity of these temperament variations. Because these differences were observed soon after the infants were born they were assumed to be largely genetic. Nonetheless, as they grew older, for some children the temperamental differences became more pronounced while the reverse was true for other children.

Thomas and Chess observed three temperamental types. First there were the infants whom the researcher’s labeled easy to please. Easy children quickly adapted to regular feeding and sleeping schedules were open to new situations and did not fuss when frustrated. They were generally happy children who smiled a lot. Another temperamental type, Thomas and Chess labeled difficult. These children did not settle easily into regular eating and sleeping patterns. They did not handle new situations well and became upset when frustrated. Socialization seemed to be the big problem for these children particularly after they began to interact with peers. The third temperament type was labeled, slow to warm up. These children initially did not adapt easily to eating and sleeping patterns, or to new or frustrating situations.

In contrast to the difficult infants, however, the slow to warm up infants eventually adapted to regular routines and could take new situations and frustrations in stride.

Thomas and Chess found that about 60 percent of the infants they observed fell into these types, with remaining 40 percent showed mixed patterns.

Thomas and Chess also observed how the environment affected temperamental traits. High activity difficult children had problems when they were in a restricted space, were on rigid schedules and had few outlets for their need for motor activity. Persistent, slow to warm up children were troubled when an activity they were engaged was prematurely interrupted. Distractible, difficult children became upset when they were expected to persist too long at a particular activity.


For parents, identifying your baby’s temperament is important. Too many parents, for example, blame themselves and their childrearing, if the child is difficult or slow to warm up. We need to remember that temperamental differences are largely inborn tendencies, not patterns written in stone. Once we appreciate that it is not our fault, we can show the patience and care that can lessen, rather than exaggerate, these initial temperamental variations.

Thomas, Chess & Birch (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York, New York University Press


By Professor David Elkind

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