By Vanessa Penberg
In this turbulent political climate, there has been much talk about temperament, but what exactly is temperament and why is it such an important consideration for babies?
Temperament is the set of characteristics we are born with which contribute greatly to the development of our distinct personalities. It influences how we react to the world and respond to different people and situations. Temperament is one of the biggest factors in why children and adults behave the way they do.
Temperament characteristics fall on a scale ranging from low to high and include such aspects as activity level, adaptability to changes in routine, how someone approaches new people and environments, regularity in eating and sleeping, attention span, persistence, mood, sensitivity to stimulation, and the intensity or energy level with which someone responds to a situation. Most experts believe that temperament is genetic, although environmental factors and parenting do influence the ways a baby’s personality or temperament is expressed.
In The New York Times blog post “Some Babies Are Just Easier than Others,” Dr. Perri Klass, NYU Professor of Pediatrics and Journalism and the national medical director of Reach Out and Reach, writes that although these temperament traits are not fixed or unchangeable, parents cannot expect to change a baby from one type of person into something that they fundamentally are not. Despite implementing recommended sleep routines, providing a nutritious and varied diet, and setting consistent limits, there are still some babies who are going to present more challenges to their parents than others.
Dr. Klass goes on to describe each normally developing baby as a “new assignment” for their parents, one which requires identifying and attempting different strategies and guidelines to foster their healthy development. She emphasizes that there can be tremendous variation among babies beginning at birth; therefore, each baby presents a unique assignment for their parents to tackle which may require that they reexamine and modify strategies they were intending to use or had used successfully with previous children. She asserts:
“Within the range of developmentally normal children, some parents have a much, much harder job than others: more drudge work, less gratification, more public shaming. It sometimes feels like the great undiscussed secret of pediatrics — and of parenting. Babies and children are different, assignments are different, and we spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back — as parents and as pediatricians — when the easy babies and toddlers behave like themselves, and a lot of time agonizing and assigning blame when the more difficult kids run true to form.”
This is an important statement because there can be so much comparison, blame, and shame among parents both within their own families and among strangers. Dr. Klass explains that a lot of perceived bad behavior may, in fact, be outside of parent’s control. This echoes something that we say often at Excellence Baby Academy (EBA): all babies are different and they do not come with a manual or guidebook. Unfortunately, strategies that work for one baby or sibling may not work well with the temperament of another. We spend a great deal of time at EBA, both during our parenting education classes and home visits, discussing why this young age is an important time in a child’s development to begin to think about and better understand his or her temperament. For better or worse, it will be with them forever. Understanding a baby’s temperament helps make parents a better decoder of their baby’s cues and ultimately a better parent. When parents understand how their baby responds to various situations, they can learn to anticipate issues that might present difficulties to their child. They can prepare the baby for a particular situation or, in some cases, they may avoid a potentially difficult situation altogether. Therefore, parents are able to set their baby up to have more positive behavior. More fully understanding and appreciating their baby’s temperament can make parents feel more effective and less stressed. Alternatively, when parents do not know that behavior is influenced by temperament, they might punish babies for behaving in a way that comes naturally to that particular child, especially if the behavior embarrasses the parent or conflicts with the parents own temperament style.
Doctors and child development specialists spend a lot of time talking about “goodness of fit” between the temperaments of parents and their babies as well as between siblings and partners. The temperament mix between parents and children especially affect family life. For example, a slow paced parent may be irritated by a highly active baby; or if both parent and baby are highly active and intense, conflict could result. Knowing this can help parents figure out how temperaments affect family relationships. What may appear to be a behavioral problem may actually be a mismatch between the parent’s temperament and their child’s. We ask parents to consider their temperament and that of their baby as they complete an EBA Temperament Characteristic Scale worksheet as an exercise during the home visit so they can see where they both fall along a scale from low to high for all of the traits.
This allows parents to compare their babies’ temperament to their own and better see the areas where they may overlap or conflict. We also provide parents with a Temperament Synopsis handout or “cheat sheet” for easy reference of the temperament characteristics which identifies the traits, their associated strengths and challenges, and suggested parenting strategies for babies who fall on either end of the spectrum for easy reference.
Understanding a baby’s temperament can help reframe how parents interpret babies’ behavior and the way parents think about the reasons for behaviors. Having this knowledge helps parents guide their baby in ways that respect the baby’s individual differences. Understanding babies’ temperaments and our own helps adults to work with them rather than try to change them. It is an opportunity to anticipate and understand a baby’s reaction. It is also important to know that temperament does not excuse a baby’s unacceptable behavior, but it does provide direction to how parents can respond to it.
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