Since our first books were published in 2004, and our more recent book in 2009 (Parenting by Temperament: The New Revised Raising Cuddlebugs and Bravehearts) we have been trying to spread the message that knowing the temperament of the parent and the temperament of the child can do wonderful things for parent and child relationships, and for parenting and disciplining in really smart, effective ways.
There are two somewhat separable ideas here. The first is the enormous parent temptation to (not so much remake as make) our children in our own image, or into a glorified model of our own ideal image. When David Keirsey originally wrote “Please Understand Me” his introductory pages were directed mainly at the adult, but they reverberate intensely in how we think about our children. He said “People are different in fundamental ways. They want different things; they have different motives, purposes aims, values, needs drives, impulses, urges. Nothing is more fundamental than that. They believe differently; they think…perceive, understand and comprehend differently….Differences abound and are not at all difficult to see, if one looks. And it is precisely these variations in behavior and attitude that trigger in each of us a common response: Seeing others around us differing from us, we conclude that these differences in individual behavior are but temporary manifestations of madness, badness, stupidity or sickness…we rather naturally account for variations in the behavior of others in terms of flaw and affliction. Our job…to correct these flaws.”
If it is common to see the differences in others as flaws–and it is–how much more true is this when we look at our children? First of all, by definition your job as a parent is to bring up happy and successful children. I remember my teenagers arguing one day about whether I pushed them down specific roads. The oldest (with an ironic grin) said in effect “Oh no, mom, as long as we are all happy, have good friends, have lots of good goals and ambitions, you really don’t care what we do.” That was all too true. There was a fair amount of wiggle room in there, but still!
Adding to this, of course, is the fact that children are children. They don’t yet think just the way we do, or have the same emotional ready buttons, or the same exact needs, so it is easy to read almost anything into their natures and future possibilities.
But third, is just the point that Keirsey was trying to make. No matter what problems we may have in running our own lives, our own preferences and temperaments really dominate our sense of what is good and wise and healthy and what is not. The Extravert may sympathize but can never really see the stay at home Introvert as mentally robust and healthy, while the Introver may see the Extravert’s charm, but secretly feel he/she is superficial. Both think the other is missing much in life. The Judger cannot imagine why the Perceiver wants such a messed-up, perpetually out of whack life, and the Perceiver cannot imagine why anyone would tie themselves up in knots trying to keep perfect order in what could be a happily chaotic world. Thinkers have to see Feelers as not only illogical, but sort of weak and mushy when it comes down to it. And Feelers will always be turned away by the Thinker’s hard edge.
Lastly, then, is the fact that underneath the baby fat and the infant burbles and coos and screams, a small unique person is developing all the same. Some babies are good natured and calm and some clearly are not. Some are very active from the start, others more inclined to watch the world unfold. Like it or not, temperament is happening.
So we begin with a mission to parent well, with the truth that infants and young children look very new and malleable, with our own deep-seated feelings about what is a good way to feel and think and what is not, and with the fact that temperament is there in our child, just lurking below the surface. And the great problem that lies ahead? We will do our best not just to get our children to behave well, but to get them to “feel” properly, to like what we like, enjoy what we enjoy. Adults who have emerged from families that were, for them, unhappy places, will remember a varying mix of guilt, shame, rejection, rebellion and anger over expectations they could not meet, or had no desire to meet.
One simple example might be the strong Thinking child with a gentle, Feeling mother. Lets make it complete by making mom an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling person and this child an Extraverted, Sensing, Thinker. There is almost nowhere that they will instinctively understand each other. Mom will have looked forward to her first child with a wealth of tenderness and joy, but as soon as this child (let’s make her a girl) is able to walk she tends to quickly wiggle off of laps and set out to do things. This is going to be a profound disappointment, and more so since the expectations for a girl are typically more in the cuddly direction than is true for boys. As an Introverted person, the mother would naturally turn far more to family for closeness than to a large network of friends, thus enhancing the problem. The Sensing/Intuition difference would probably be less troublesome, but it does mean that a mother and child who already do not understand each other will also not reverberate to the same early stories and poems and ideas about the world. What will happen here? If the mother is very secure in herself and secure in her relationship to husband/family, we can assume she will be lastingly regretful, but will come to accept her child as she is, and love her for herself. If not, you can imagine that this child will forever feel that she has disappointed, in her first and closest relationship, and feel guilty and perhaps ashamed, without reason or explanation. In addition, she will probably pull away from this mother/child relationship far more than she would have if her natural feelings had been acceptable. Would understanding temperament differences cure all this.? Clearly, no, the problems are real; but it could lead this mother much closer to the first outcome here–understanding and acceptance of her child as she is. And that would be so much better.
It is my belief that a strong Feeling/Thinking conflict may be the most serious within a family, simply because it can stir so much deep emotion and can have lasting effects on future relationships, but you can easily imagine many other cross-temperament problems. Give a father the EST preferences we gave the child above, and perhaps add Judging, and then let his son be an INFP, and dad will have a fierce time trying to keep contempt out of his feelings for his son on many, many occasions. This boy, in turn, may have a lifelong struggle with self-respect and with finding his way in the world. Again, would a knowledge of temperament be the cure? No, but it surely could help.
The heart of the problem is that given the certainty we all have about what is and isn’t good and valuable in the world, we don’t just try to shape behavior and action, we try to shape the innermost thoughts, feelings and desires of our children–their very selves. That is where the damage is really done. We all have to learn to make our way in the world, to acquire some skills, to compromise, to stretch to do necessary things. To some degree, teaching this is the proper role of parents. Teaching a child to have your thoughts and feelings instead of their own is something quite different–and quite destructive.
This is the first of several blogs on the role of temperament in parenting. Next week will look at child temperament and discipline.
Keirsey, David & Bates, Marilyn (1978). Please Understand Me. Prometheus Nemesis: Del Mar CA