By Dr Robert Needlman
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Toddler girl smiling Raising Children Network

Most parents and professionals believe that babies are born with very different behavioural styles. Some are relaxed and easygoing, others appear more intense and dramatic. Some seem to move constantly, others are more docile. Some are cheerful most of the time, others are more serious.

These inborn differences in how a child responds to the world and to his own body are called temperament. The idea of temperament helps explain how children growing up in the same family often have such different personalities. It also explains why some parents have difficulty raising certain children, but much less difficulty raising other ones.

For example, one parent describes her active, intense, quick-witted and strong-willed two-year-old as ‘exhausting’, while another parent, whose own temperament is more compatible, calls him ‘my little sparkler’.

Temperament is not something that parents can choose or change for their child. Nor can a child simply decide to change his inborn nature. As a parent, it can be very helpful (and also humbling) to realise that a lot of who your child is, is beyond your control. What you can do is to understand and accept your child's individual make-up and adjust your parenting accordingly.

Behavioural styles can change

Temperament tells you about a child's typical behavioural style. Most children have a range of behaviours: loud sometimes, quiet at other times. Many temperament traits also change over time. Active children often grow up into adults who work at desks all day long. Cranky infants often grow up to be happy children. Shy children sometimes grow up to become effective public speakers.

Even when temperament traits stay the same, the meaning of those traits often changes with age. An intense and persistent two-year-old has long, loud tantrums. The same child, at 10 years of age, might excel at cricket: his high intensity lets him play harder, and his persistence lets him practise longer to perfect his batting.

Sorting out temperament

One well-known system breaks temperament up into nine categories:

  • activity level
  • distractibility
  • approach/withdrawal
  • intensity of responses
  • persistence
  • adaptability
  • quality of mood
  • regularity
  • sensitivity.

Your child's temperament has a lot to do with the pleasures and problems you will have raising him. It has a lot to do with how you feel about yourself as a parent. How well you understand your child's temperament, and adjust your parenting to fit it, has a lot to do with his long-term wellbeing.