Are babies really born a blank slate? Part One of Two

BlogHer Original Post

photo by Anne GeddesNo, this will not be a post about reincarnation. This post is about inborn temperament, reflections of thoughts that have been on my mind since the birth of my son more than 16 years ago.

I can tell you that from birth, my son's temperament was different from my daughter's temperament. I think as parents, we should recognize that all children are not the same and that you may be able to see their differences early on. As they are not all the same, the same parenting styles or forms of discipline don't necessarily produce the same result on any given child. We have to know our children.

The nanny shows and sometimes our own words seem to suggest that the same techniques work on every child regardless. We say things like, "I don't know what happened. I treated Susan and Anne both the same, but Susan would never do as I asked. I just don't know what's wrong with her." We also reinforce errors in our thinking with words like, "Babies come here a blank slate. A poorly behaved child means a "bad" parent."

On that last statement, I know that to be wrong if the person is talking about very young children throwing tantrums or acting up in the WalMart. While there are some "bad" parents, little Johnny's tantrum at age three in the WalMart may mean Johnny's naturally intense. The wise parent will eventually figure out how to handle little Johnny's intensity, and it may mean the parent has to draw on parenting tools he/she never had to use for other children in the family.

Research from geneticists and psychologists tells me that my thinking on this matter's on track. Consider research about the happy gene from Duke University:

A single gene could be responsible for making some people naturally positive and happy while forcing others to be negative and gloomy.

Happiness is a mood, part of temperament. I know some people who I suspect have this happy gene. I'm not one of them. But I'm also a person who believes that we sometimes must work against our genetics. If I didn't think this way, then I'd never try to lose weight. Fatness is in my genes. So, please don't think I'm suggesting that if your child seems to be naturally happy and positive that you don't try to also train them approach problems realistically. I wouldn't suggest this any more than I'd say leave the child who tends toward sadness in his/her misery. I believe that a parent's job is to cultivate reasonable and healthy attitudes in children so children may grow to their highest noble selves.

Now consider these ideas about temperament from the Family and Consumer Sciences department at Ohio State University.

Children are born with their natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places, and things—their temperament. In the late 1950s, temperament research began with the work of Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and associates. The New York Longitudinal Study identified nine temperament characteristics or traits. The researchers found that these nine traits were present at birth and continued to influence development in important ways throughout life. By observing a child's responses to everyday situations, the researchers could assess these temperaments. Temperament is stable and differs from personality, which is a combination of temperament and life experiences, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.

This same article also has a list of temperament traits. You can read the entire article at this link.

Now, let me tell you how about my crazy ideas as a young mother, and how the birth of my son humbled me.

My daughter and son are nearly ten years apart in age. My daughter was born first when I was a tender 21, and I confess that I was rather proud of myself toting her around. I thought her angelic temperament and behavior was proof that I was a natural mother with innately good parenting skills. Yes, I really had that crazy idea in my head, that a well-behaved child the first time around meant I was a great parent. Hah!

I measured my wonderful parenting this way: When my daughter was three, if I were busy, I might say to my daughter, "Can you wait, honey? Mommy's busy. Play with your toys and I'll be there in a minute." And off she'd go to dutifully play with her toys. She was always well-behaved in public and continued to be so even into her teen years. Well, pat me on the back. Certainly I was doing something right!

Then along came my son. He was a cranky baby. He didn't really sleep much. At one point shortly after his birth, I had a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation. He was so different from my daughter. I could almost see the energy coursing through his little veins. My father visited when my son was born, and he called my mother on the phone to report, "This one's not like the first. He's feisty!" Uh, yeah. We have pictures of my son taken by his father of the infant walking, no, running at 10 months, and you can almost see sparks shooting from his eyes.

Could I ever say to him when he was three, "Go play with your toys. Mommy, will be right there later."? Oh, sure, I could say that, but did it work?

Left alone in a room for 10 minutes, as young as three, my son might decide to rearrange a room, including changing the decor by adding wall drawings. After he'd redecorated, he'd show up beside me and say, "I'm bored." I'd walk into the room and understand why some women started taking Valium after childbirth.

I remember him hopping off the church pews and crawling beneath them. I resorted to a harness for him because I couldn't follow him under the pews. I had to tug on him to say, "Hey, kid. Come back!" It was either that or leave. Oh, how the other mothers in church, all African-American, scorned me. I could hear their thougths, Black mothers don't do the harness thing, they spank behinds. What's wrong with her? And my son did receive a rear tap or two, but I was so happy when the church started its nursery to which we could bring children during service.

What did those mothers expect me to do, constantly beat my child? I was avenged when one of the most critical women had her first child. Yes, she had been critical despite not having children of her own. Her child arrived and by the time he was two everyone could see he was smart as a whip, and as wild as my child.

Yes, up until my son was about five, people used to ask me if he were hyperactive because he never stopped moving. I'd say, "No, he doesn't need Ritalin." I knew he wasn't hyperactive in the sense they meant it. (Believe me, I studied ADD and ADHD to make sure.) He was just himself. He drove me insane, but I realized that he needed something different from my daughter. He needed more structure.

You may read Part Two of this post at the following link: Part Two.

Photo by Anne Geddes.

Nordette Adams is a free-lance journalist, poet, and fiction writer. Visit her blog at this link.


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