Temperament — Hey, We Were Born That Way

Dear Mr. Dad: We have a two boys, ages 6 and 4. We’ve tried hard to raise them the same way, but they’re completely different. The older one is generally pretty calm and cheerful, but the younger one is wild, noisy, and impossible to discipline. How could two kids raised in the same house by the same parents be such polar opposites?

A: You may think you’ve raised your kids the same way in the same house, but you really haven’t. First of all, you and your spouse have changed—a lot. When your first child was born, the whole parenting thing was totally new. Like most new parents, you probably had no idea what you were doing and you were afraid of making mistakes. By the time baby number two arrived, you’d gained a lot of confidence and discovered that most of the things you’d worried about were trivial at best.

Second, as you well know, taking care of two kids is very different than taking care of one, so there’s no way in the world (barring cloning yourself) that your youngest could have gotten anywhere near as much of your undivided attention as his big brother did. Given all that, how could your children not be different?

But even if you had raised both children in identical circumstances, there’s a good chance that they’d still be very different.

About fifty years ago, researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas found that every child has a unique collection of emotional and behavioral traits that make up his or her “temperament.” That temperament is noticeable almost from birth and continues throughout life. Here’s a brief overview.

  • Approach/Withdrawal: This is your child’s initial reaction to meeting new people, tasting new foods, or being in unfamiliar situations. Approaching children are extroverts and enjoy the new and different. Withdrawing children are shyer and take time to get used to new things.
  • Adaptability: This is how your child reacts to changes in routines. Fast-adapting children adapt easily, slow-adapting kids get upset if anything changes.
  • Intensity: This is essentially your child’s volume knob. Low-intensity children (like your oldest) are relaxed and even-tempered. High-intensity kids do everything—whether it’s shrieking with delight or having a tantrum—incredibly loudly.
  • Mood: Positive mood kids laugh and smile all the time. Negative mood kids tend to be pouty, even for no reason.
  • Activity level: Low-activity children can sit quietly for long periods of time and prefer low-energy games and activities. High-activity kids can’t sit still and prefer higher-energy activities.
  • Regularity: Predictable children get hungry, tired, wake up, and even use the bathroom at about the same time every day. Unpredictable babies are, well, unpredictable.
  • Sensitivity: Low-sensory-aware children often seem oblivious to bright lights, strong odors or flavors, textures, and even pain. High-sensory-aware children are easily overstimulated and have a tough time dealing with everything from temperature to noise.
  • Distractibility: Low-distractibility kids can focus intently and may not notice interruptions (or attempts to get them to stop what they’re doing). High-distractibility kids have shorter attention spans and an easier time moving from one activity to another.
  • Persistence: Persistent children can entertain themselves for hours and will spend lots of time working of projects or learning new things. Low-persistence children lose interest quickly, often claim to be bored, and take a little longer to finish anything, whether it’s homework or a Rubik’s Cube.

 

Bottom line: Temperament is what it is—there’s no “right” or “wrong.” Your children are the way they are mostly because they were born that way, and there’s very little you or your spouse could have done to change things.