The fit (misfit?) between your child’s temperament and your own is no small matter in good parenting. If it is as normal as breathing for you to pick up anything dropped on the floor almost before it lands, if being late to an appointment causes you to break out in a quiet sweat, if the most visited screen on your iphone is your daily to-do list, then the best of children are going to make you a little crazy. If inside the new person there is a little you, however, just waiting for time and opportunity to follow in your footsteps, it won’t be too bad. Tidiness will break out before you know it and the small person will begin lining her shoes up in the closet, putting toys neatly in the toybox, and keeping a cover on her toothbrush. You will soon smile and think how easy it is, just a few gentle words of direction and reminder and all is well.
But, but, what if the small one is a grasshopper instead of an ant (in Keirsey’s preference terms, a Perceiver instead of a Judger?) What if glorious chaos, toys covering every inch of the floor, yesterday’s clothes still in a pile near the closet, storybooks conveniently open on the floor, on the bed, on the dining table? Then what? You may start with the same gentle reminders and explanations, but curiously, nothing changes. Months go by, maybe years, and you become increasingly stern and angry. You vary between thinking that this girl behaves like this just to irritate you, and wondering if the family got the wrong child at the hospital. Temperament matters. It can make parent/child relationships remarkably easy or extremely diffiicult. Understanding the real dynamics will not work miracles if you two are very different, but it can certainly help you to find a better strategy and a better pathway.
Let me give you a simple example from my own child rearing days. When Mike, our oldest was between 4 and 5 he developed a fascination with turning on the hose in the back yard. (Not on and off–just on.) Unfortunately, we had the hose, but no grass as yet—just a fence and lots and lots of dirt to make lots and lots of mud. On one particular day I had had it and brought him in for a lengthy time-out in his room. A long time went by with no tears or complaints. After half an hour of this I went in to check the scene and found him playing totally happily by himself, with various odds and ends of toys that he had strung together. I don’t doubt that this could have gone on for another hour.
Was a time-out, especially in a toy-available area, the right discipline for Mike? Not at all. It might have worked for a very extraverted child who would immediately been bored all alone, but Mike was a pretty happy little introvert. It might have worked as an expression of parental displeasure for a child whose happiness depended on parental approval, but Mike’s happiness depended hugely on trying new things, and watching things happen. (We would say that he was more Feeler than Thinker, to use the terminology). And it might have worked for a child who really focused on one thing at a time and would be very frustrated at being taken away from the garden hose (a bit more Judger) , but Mike was highly adaptable. He was what we would now call an INTP—an Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiver.
Introverted? All sorts of things were going on inside his little head, and he could be happy as a clam playing by himself. Intuitive? He was curious about everything, and especially about what made things work. He wasn’t playing with the hose just to drive me crazy; he really wanted to see all the wonderful effects of running water. Thinking? Even at age five, reason and logic were more appealing than feelings. Perceiver? He was a little grasshopper, happy to go from one scene to another, to engage and disengage with whatever was in front of him.
What about Mike’s mom? At least to a degree, I played the ant to his grasshopper. I wanted things to be orderly and under control as much as possible. I did share some of his intuitive curiosity, but not about mud and hoses. Certainly, if I understood him better I would have realized that happy time-outs were not an answer for either of us. Quite possibly a locking mechanism on the hose would have helped more, and finding more ways to let him experiment without destroying house and home would have been a positive step. Short of that, time-outs in a barren and boring area would have been an improvement.
Of course, many parent-child conflicts are much more serious and frustrating than this. Parents who dearly love to hug and cuddle their children, and find they have given birth to a happy but uncuddly little Thinker may feel that they are totally failing, when in fact the small person is just fine and the parent needs to do a lot of adjusting and accepting. On the opposite side, a cuddly child with a cool Thinker parent may feel very unloved unless the parent understands and stretches his or her own temperament preferences to meet the child’s needs. Without realizing it, it is very possible to try to parent the child that you wanted, rather than the child you really have, and to be the parent that is comfortable rather than the one your child really needs.
Testing for temperament is an up to date way to begin a journey of understanding for yourself and your child. If you two are very different sorts of people, it will be a long journey, with understanding struggling against all sorts of contrary feelings–annoyance, impatience, and disbelief.
The expression “as normal as breathing” is a good image for how much our basic temperament feels like the right temperament. It takes time, lots of observation, and lots of reflection to begin to accept that our children have their own view of the world. That doesn’t mean that everything should work to fit their view, but it does mean that there have to be compromises and there have to be strategies to make those compromises work.
Our “ant” mom with the grasshopper daughter, will be well advised to do several things. First she needs to recognize that her automatic discomfort at untidy surroundings is simply not shared by her daughter, and is not a motivator at all. Second, with this in mind, she needs to set much more limited standards for neatness and promptness than she would ever be comfortable with, but find ways to see that those minimal standards are met, for her own sake. That is the compromise. Third, once she accepts the fact that a need for tidiness is never going to be an inherent motivator, she needs to build in some external ones. In our family it was what we called the “fink” basket. All possessions had to be collected at the end of the day and put away. Anything left out was confiscated and had to be bought back out of allowances or extra chores. It worked–even for the worst of the grasshoppers. That is just one of many possible strategies, but compromise and strategies are the name of the game here.
Understanding temperament just takes some of the anger out of this process, and hastens the move to compromise. If this is an interesting idea for you we invite you to go to www.parentingbytemperament.com for temperament tests that are designed for families, and free of charge. Just look on the website menu for “About our Sorters”.