Parenting by Temperament: Every Child is Unique

A Note:  This is the last in my series of blogs on the use of temperament in parenting.  It is a chapter taken from our Parenting by Temperament book.  It should be interesting to those of you who are familiar with MBTI and Keirsey preferences, because it tries to envision the earliest indications of preferences in babies and toddlers.  For those who are new to this area, it is a jargon-free introduction to these ideas.  For example, children who would later be called Feelers or Thinkers are simply referred to as cuddlers and non-cuddlers.

And a reminder:  For those who are interested in a free source for measuring preferences and temperament, we offer this for adults and for children from ages 4-8 and 9-12 (taken by the parents) on our main website.  Just go to our website  here.

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Chapter 7:  Every Child is Unique

Your child’s developmental plan

Just as your infant comes into the world with the skills, drives and motivations common to all human children, he also brings a developmental plan for himself that is entirely his own. Research indicates that about 50% of adult personality comes from gene-based differences in temperament.[1]  Recognizing these differences in your child will give you a great advantage in making the most of both responsiveness and demandingness. The same is true for you, as the unique parent.  It is one thing to see a best possible way to parent; it is quite another to make the ideal method fit with the real you.  Your own individual temperament pushes and pulls you in ways that you may not fully recognize.  In this chapter we will talk about temperament differences in children. Later we will look at parent temperament and how it may affect all that you do.

Some early differences you might see in your child.

In the beginning it’s confusing.  The first two or three months of life are pretty hard to judge. Some babies are cheery from the start, some are rather quiet, and some seem to be pretty mad about the whole thing much of the time.  But, this is a very tumultuous time.  As we noted before, stress hormones shoot up in newborns at the slightest provocation, and that can be pretty disturbing.  New parents are unsure of themselves, tired and sometimes not parenting brilliantly yet.  And then there is colic for some infants, disturbed sleep patterns for others, problems with formula for yet another set.  You really can’t make much of this in the early weeks.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  To keep this story clear and simple we are describing extremes in the baby and toddler behaviors below.  If your child falls closer to the middle, that is also normal and unsurprising.

 By three months.

As things begin to calm down around the third month, the most distinctive difference may be in how much your child smiles, grins and giggles.  The big smiler may also be a very noisy babbler.  As he gets better and better control over muscles, this same child is likely to be pretty active and eager to meet the world.  At the other extreme are babies who are quiet and rather serious, giving you a big smile as a special treat, but not tossing these out routinely.  Such babies have sometimes been described as “old souls”, serious about the world from day one.

Another distinction is among babies who are very cuddly, who just melt right into your arms and seem to be in heaven, and those sometimes can take it or leave it.  The cuddlers are often happy to be passed from person to person in the early months, love prolonged contact, may virtually purr over being touched, sung to, etc.  At the opposite extreme are those who cuddle rather briefly, and are soon looking around for something else to see, hear, and react to.  As they grow older and more independent, such children may accept your hug briefly and then squirm and wiggle to get down and do things.

Interestingly, these two sets of differences may come mixed and matched.  We can find smiley cuddlers and serious cuddlers, smiley non-cuddlers and serious non-cuddlers.  By about age four we can begin to measure these differences and make some predictions about each child’s future behavior.

By three years.

 If your first observations were accurate, we can now see quite a bit more in the behavior of these children.  The early big smilers are likely to be outgoing and friendly, noisy and active.  As toddlers they are apt to be bored quickly without some company.  It is likely that the classic “fear of strangers” period was relatively short and mild, and it is very probable that they will adjust pretty easily to their introduction to nursery school. They generally enjoy having a fair amount of chaos and activity at home, and are rarely upset by it.

The more serious babies are now showing you something else.  Chances are, they had a significant struggle with the fear of strangers period, and may not yet have accepted preschool or other group activities without complaint.  At the least they tend to watch a group quietly from the sidelines for quite a while before venturing in.  Long periods of group activity, even household chaos, are likely to be tiring, where the same activity might rev our little giggler up.

If there is going to be a tantrum-like meltdown for this child, it is likely to occur when there has been too much chaos (from their perspective) and too little quiet time.  If your big smiler is going to have a tantrum it is more likely to be over something he really wanted to do that you did not allow.  Reserved is a word that may come to mind as you watch your serious toddler, just as bold may now be a good fit for your smiley toddler.

Our cuddlers are likely to be demonstratively affectionate, and gentle souls overall.  By three they may already be showing signs of their ability to empathize with others.  They may get upset if another child is crying or hurt, and even go so far as to seek help at that tender age.  In the family setting you may find that they become tearful if there are voices raised in anger.  Disciplining or criticizing them may lead quickly to emotional meltdowns.

Non-cuddler babies may now seem to be a cooler, but calmer breed.  At the extreme they can be children who quickly wipe off smeary kisses from overly-enthusiastic aunts, and are choosey as to who they want to hug and be hugged by.  They might do something practical to help another child in distress, but they would be much less likely to be upset by that child’s tears. As they grow older and more verbal, you may find that you need to remind them that not everything that is thought needs to be said—a nice way of saying that they can be outspoken and overly frank

Mix and match again.  It may seem logical that smiley toddlers would be cuddly toddlers and serious toddlers would be non-cuddlers, but the fact is that we come in marvelous combinations, so that this can go either way.  The one thing that is very clear is that the more serious toddler (and adult!) reserves her many or few hugs and kissesfor family and very close friends, where the smiley toddler is willing to disperse them (however few or many) widely.       

 Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

Some of us have our eyes on the road directly in front of us, and keep a close eye on street signs and passing traffic.  On a trip we have our route clearly in mind.  When we tell someone about the trip later it is likely to be in detail and in pretty good chronological order.  We are practical, and pretty much assume everyone else should be also.

Others are dreamier and more in love with what we can imagine.  At our worst, a practical spouse may have to remind us that we just missed a turn-off on our trip while we were fantasizing about how much fun it would be to be at our destination.  If we describe it later we will probably sail by all the practical details, and talk about what the outing meant to us, or what the most interesting thing was that we learned from it.

These differences are certainly not evident in your three month old, and hard to see at three years or even four.  However, if you are sensitive to the signs you may begin to form an opinion about whether you have a daydreamer or a down to earth toddler, even in the first years. All children ask a million questions over the years, but if you pay attention to the ones where they seem to want serious answers, you may see a difference.

Your dreamer may ask many more “why” questions, and these may have an increasingly abstract quality. Not “why do we have to have peas again” or “why is daddy mad”, but “why do things die”, or “what makes it rain on some days and not others”. Your practical toddler is more likely to ask you equally challenging questions about how things work or how the picture gets into the TV set.

The more practical child may talk a great deal about what she is doing right now, or what she is excited about right now. The more dreamy child is more likely to begin to muse on what she will do when she grows up or gets “big”.  Their choice of favorite stories may also reflect this difference, with dreamers enjoying stories full of make-believe, and practicals relishing stories about real life adventures.  Even earlier, you may see some differences in everyday play behavior.  In the bathtub, baby practicals of all ages may delight in the sensations more, splashing and playing endlessly with the water and their water toys.  As they get older, dreamers are more likely to turn even their soap bars into dragons or speedboats, and/or to begin telling stories about them. The little practical child may delight more in interesting sensations.  Running through puddles, squeezing gooey clay, looking at textures, making simple but realistic structures of all sorts, is especially pleasing.

The dreamer, playing in the sandbox, is more likely to get carried away with some story about what might be happening, than with the details of her creation.   Lastly, it is highly unlikely that your practical child will ever have an imaginary friend, while your dreamer might at some point.  All children do all of these things, but different temperaments are likely to emphasize one group of activities over another.

Structure-lovers and freedom-lovers

This is yet another area where people can differ radically from one another.  It is particularly hard for people at one extreme of this to make any sense of the person at the opposite extreme.  Some of us are at our very best and our most comfortable when life is extremely orderly and predictable.  If so, we will work very hard to keep it that way.  The person with an immaculate home, car waxed to the nth, clear desk, empty in-basket, garage tools that fit the motto “a place for everything and everything in its place”, and a state of the art scheduling calendar, really does love structure and organization.

At the other extreme is a free-spirit who is somewhere between indifferent and hostile to orderliness.  If we could force that free-spirit (perhaps as a reality show participant!) to spend most of every day maintaining the structure-lover’s order, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.  This free spirit would not only not do it well, she would absolutely hate it.

The motto here is close to an old fifties song “Don’t fence me in.”  She wants to wake up in the morning and think, “well, what do I feel most like doing today?”  And if she changes her mind after a couple of cups of coffee, she would like to be free to do that too.  Chaos is comfortable, plans can be easily changed, and life is a daily adventure.

This is perhaps the hardest thing to see in a very young child, since no child, by definition, is ever very orderly.  However, if your toddler has a favorite plate and really insists on it, or likes his part of the table set always the same way, he might be a budding order-lover.  It is too much to imagine a three year old tidying her room regularly, but if she seems to like it when things are done up neatly, if she arranges toys or stuffed animals in a particular way, she might be an order lover.  If he seems totally content when all his toys are absolutely everywhere, he might be an up and coming free spirit.   If he revels in having muddy clothes, or at least is blissfully unconcerned about it, a free spirit may be developing.

A child who is upset when clothes get dirty (and not because that will bring down parental wrath) is signaling concerns about order. The small person who can, when asked, lead you directly to his shoes, or even your car keys, has a future as structured soul, where the child who loses gloves, jackets, small toys, with surprising frequency, may have a promising future as a free spirit.

Told to do some one thing—“put this teddy in your room”, or “wash your hands for supper”– your future structure lover is likely to do this fairly efficiently, where your little free-spirit is much more likely to start out all right, but get distracted along the way and be found busily doing something else when you go looking for her.

Lastly, if your toddler has been really looking forward to a Saturday activity, and plans change, it is the order-lover who is likely to be the most frustrated and unhappy, while the free-spirit is more likely to complain a little but soon go off fairly happily to do something else.

Each temperament preference will present its own strengths and weaknesses in demandingness situations, but the free-spirit can present some unique challenges.  The below is one family example.

Trying to discipline Mike.

 For many children, time-out periods where they must remain quietly in their room are effective discipline tools.  It’s a revered strategy, with a positive track record in many homes.  But, there are certain children who are really not fazed by this, however much they protest momentarily. As a result, they may gain little from the experience.  In our family, the oldest sib, Michael, was one of those.  At around age four Mike went through a period of fascination with water and hoses.  Regardless of stern warnings, let out to play in the yard he would soon have the water running and muck and water everywhere.

 Putting him in a corner of the living room was useless, as he soon adjusted and began chattering happily or counting his fingers and toes, or just peeking at the general family commotion.  So, step two was off to the bedroom, door closed.  The designated time would go by, but there was no sad voice asking “is it time yet?” When he simply never reappeared, one of us would go to rescue him, only to find that he had found something else fascinating to do, and was completely oblivious.  This was a little boy who really didn’t mind playing alone, and had the ability to make something interesting happen with whatever props came to hand!

 Some interesting combinations

The child who is both practical and in love with good order  Should your toddler fit both of these descriptions, many aspects of parenting will seem remarkably easy.  There is something about this combination that leads to an exceptional love not only of orderliness, but of doing things the “right” way.  As they grow they seem most comfortable and secure in a world where things happen in a highly predictable and clear fashion.  For that reason, they tend to accept rules and limits remarkably well and be respectful of authority.  They are likely to be tidy with their own possessions, and as they move along in school they may become very good about motivating themselves for chores and homework, being on time, and just generally being organized.

The dreamy and free-spirited child  Here is the flip side of what we just described.  It is not hard to imagine that this child is maximally oblivious to orderliness.  Between the happy indifference of the freedom loving tendency, and the fascination with

things of the imagination of the dreamy child, the everyday world of following directions, heeding rules, putting things away, and knowing where things are, is really not on the radar.  This child will often delight you with spontaneous joy in the moment, but parenting may be much like the expression “herding cats.


[1] Bouchard, T. J. (1994).  Genes, Environment and Personality.  Science 264 p 1700-1701.

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