Nature vs. Nurture: What Parents Should Know About Their Child’s Temperament

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form.”  -Jerome Kagan
The debate about just how much of our behavior and personality is genetic vs. environmental, or nature vs. nurture, has raged on for the last hundred years. Twenty or thirty years ago, in an ongoing effort to understand why people behave in certain ways, both good and bad, researchers focused on things like the family environment or types of parenting that were correlated with problems or resiliency in children.

In the past ten years, with advances in technology that have helped us unravel more of the mysteries of both genetics and also how the brain works, the pendulum has swung back towards the important impact of a child’s genetic make-up. The truth, of course, of why we are the way we are, is somewhere in the middle. Each of us is the product of both our biology and our social learning.

If you want to learn more about what science currently accepts are the inborn characteristics of human beings, a great book on the topic is Understanding Your Child’s Temperament by William Carey. Temperament is, by definition, the part of a child’s personality that is not caused by good or bad parenting.

We now know that infants are born with certain built-in traits that affect their style of interacting with people, places and things throughout their lifetime. This validates what many parents knew intuitively all along. Like so many parents out there, I have two children who were different from birth. Before my experience as a parent, I had no idea how much biology plays a role in our personality development.

There are nine factors that have been uncovered that are part of our temperament:file000753288887

1. Activity levels: How much does your baby (or child or you as an adult) move? You may have even noticed this while pregnant. This is the child’s “idle speed”. Does your baby sit quietly and watch or want to be in the middle of the action?

2. Rhythms and regularity: Is your child regular in sleep and eating schedules or is it difficult to get him/her into a routine?

3. Initial reaction of approach or avoidance: Does your child shy away from new people, places, or activities, or approach them willingly? This dimension is related to introversion and extroversion.

4. Adaptability: Does your child adjust to changes in plans or have trouble with times of transition? Babies differ on how quickly they adapt to new situations.

5. Intensity: Does your child react strongly to situations , positively or negatively, with lots of intensity or react calmly and quietly? This is a measure of outward energy both expressions of pleasure or upset.

Scolded6. Mood: Does your child more often express a negative or positive attitude? Does her mood shift frequently or is he more even-tempered? Is your baby generally happy or typically serious?

7. Persistence and attention span: Does your child give up quickly when frustrated with a task? Can she stick with an activity for a long time? This dimension examines sticking with a given task in spite of obstacles.

8. Distractibility: This dimension looks at the quality of attention when a child is not particularly interested in an activity. Is your child easily distracted or able to shut out distractions and stay with an activity?

9. Sensory threshold: Is your child bothered by stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, smells, textures of clothing and food, or able to ignore them? This dimension measures the amount of stimulation (sounds, tastes, touch, temperature changes) needed to produce a response in the child.

Once you have figured out about your child’s temperament as well as your own, you can see how some children “fit” better with some adults. If your temperament is vastly different from that of your child, it is easy to think something is terribly wrong with one or both of you. Carey’s book can help parents spot the trouble areas, notice problems of poor fit, and come up with strategies for adapting to their child’s unique temperament.


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