Part 2 of Temperament Series

Part 2: The Role of Temperament in Parent-Child Interactions  

In the previous post about temperament I reviewed some of the main theories and definitions of temperament that are common in child development research. It is important to remember that the categories described in these theories (e.g., “difficult,” “easy,” “slow to warm up”) are not meant to be labels in which children can be pigeon-holed for life. They are simply categories that help describe different combinations of characteristics or behavior patterns. Although there seems to be some genetic basis for temperament, this does not mean a child is destined to be one way or another. Many other factors come into play. A couple of factors that I’m discussing today are culture and parent-child interactions.

The Role of Temperament in Parent-Child Interactions

Although many concepts discussed in child development are culturally bound, this seems to be especially the case with temperament. What is defined as a “difficult” or “easy” temperament can vary dramatically by culture. Just think about it. We here in modern Western society may think of a fussy baby who cries a lot as having a “difficult” temperament, but in a less advantaged culture where famine or disease are common, such as baby would be considered “hardy” and more likely to survive these challenges. Thinking of temperament in this way gives it a whole new perspective.

Similarly, how parents respond to their child’s temperament can have a lot to do with their own culture-bound values, expectations and standards. For example, many of us who were raised in American culture value independence and self-reliance to a great degree. Given this, we may respond to a child who is “slow to warm up,” apprehensive about social interaction, or who needs more guidance much differently than a parent from a culture that values interdependence more highly.

Beyond cultural expectations, parents’ personal values and expectations for their child may also influence how they react to their child’s temperament. Researchers Thomas and Chess also examined this extensively in several long-term child development studies. They found that how parents reacted to their child’s temperament had a great deal to do with how the child’s behavior matched up with their own values and standards. 

For instance, they give the example of a “slow to warm up” child who is hesitant about making new friends. If parents view this behavior in a negative light as being overly timid or unfriendly, they may force the child to make new friends very quickly, to which the child may respond by being even more anxious. This has the possibility of establishing a difficult pattern of parent-child interaction. Other parents, with a less negative interpretation of their child’s behavior, might be more patient with the child and allow him/her to make friends on their own time. This type of response will most likely make for both a happier child and happier parents in this situation.

I offer these few thoughts on temperament as food for thought more than advice. There are a lot of great resources out there (some are listed below) that discuss how to deal with different temperaments. Personally, I think the important part of this research is to help us understand that parents have many different ways they can respond to their child’s temperament and which one they choose has a lot to do with their interpretation of their child’s behavior and how it fits with their own values and goals. 

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