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

BlogHer Original Post

This is the second part of a two-part post about inborn temperament. Part one may be read at this link.

Here's a list of temperament traits from an article at Ohio State University about children and natural temperament.

The examination of a child's temperament generally occurs when the child's behavior is difficult. Clinicians use a series of interviews, observations, and questionnaires that measure the nine temperament traits using a spectrum (scale) indicating mild to intense responses or reactions. By understanding temperament, the parent can work with the child rather than trying to change his or her inborn traits. The nine temperament traits and an explanation of the dimensions are given below.

  • Activity: Is the child always moving and doing something OR does he or she have a more relaxed style?
  • Rhythmicity: Is the child regular in his or her eating and sleeping habits OR somewhat haphazard?
  • Approach/withdrawal: Does he or she "never meet a stranger" OR tend to shy away from new people or things?
  • Adaptability: Can the child adjust to changes in routines or plans easily or does he or she resist transitions?
  • Intensity: Does he or she react strongly to situations, either positive or negative, OR does he or she react calmly and quietly?
  • Mood: Does the child often express a negative outlook OR is he or she generally a positive person? Does his or her mood shift frequently OR is he or she usually even-tempered?s
  • Persistence and attention span: Does the child give up as soon as a problem arises with a task OR does he or she keep on trying? Can he or she stick with an activity a long time OR does his or her mind tend to wander?
  • Distractibility: Is the child easily distracted from what he or she is doing OR can he or she shut out external distractions and stay with the current activity?
  • Sensory threshold: Is he or she bothered by external stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or food textures OR does he or she tend to ignore them?

The first tantrum

With my daughter, I was deluded, thinking I was naturally a good mother. But that wasn't true. What was true is that my daughter had a naturally even temperament. Even her tantrums were nice and quiet. The first time she threw a tantrum it took me a few minutes to figure out what she was doing. I recall that she was about two and had been told she couldn't do something.

Suddenly she was on the floor, having fallen down as gracefully as a dancer. She fell like a silk scarf dropping from raised hands, and she didn't say a word. She didn't scream. She didn't yell. She didn't kick. She just lay down on the floor, looking up at the ceiling. I thought, What is this, a sixties form of protest? Then the light went off. Oh! This is a tantrum.

Taking a cue from my grandmother's book of parental tricks, I stepped over my two-year-old and went about my business. The idea was to teach her that tantrums do not work to help one get one's way. Eventually, she arose and was fine.

My son's first tantrum was different. He had a hissy fit. Reminded me of my brother's tantrums--fall out on the floor. Do the maniac!--I wanted to laugh, but I looked at my son the same way I'd looked at my daughter and then I stepped over him. A little while later he got up, but unlike my daughter he was not fine and ready to move on. My son followed me, fuming, objecting to my ignoring him with noises like, "Hmmmhhh!" I continued to ignore him.

Coping Skills

Okay, eventually he too got over it and stopped the noises, but did he really stop following me. My son's temperament makes him more persistent than my daughter when he wants his way.

As my daughter grew and learned to reason, she still did not try to talk me to death to get her way. After one or two tries, she seemed to figure, "Mom's made up her mind. The answer is no." A trait I've had to strengthen in my daughter is assertiveness, and to some degree persistence. She's persistent in pursuing tasks such as solving physical problems like puzzles, but she may cave too easily when it comes to solving problems with people.

My son on the other hand, when he grew a little older and learned to reason, just as he had done following his maniac tantrums, would follow me around and make noise. However, this new noise had logical patterns. I used to call him "the lawyer." As early as when he was three, some discussions went as follows: I'd say, "No," and he'd say, "Aww, come on, Mom, let's make a deal."

With age, he adopted new strategies. Sometimes his follow-up wasn't immediate. Sometimes he didn't get back to me for days. He wanted to catch me again with my guard down. One of the things my son's had to learn is when to let stuff go with people, when to accept "No." On the other hand, he's a teenager and sometimes gives up too easily on things like getting a straight answer from a store clerk. He'll need to learn balance.

Ignore a negative temperament trait and you may raise a little monster

I always sensed my son needed more structure and routine than my daughter. Not being particularly structured myself, I found giving him more structure difficult. The first sign that ignoring my son's need in this area would hinder him a life occurred when he entered Pre-K.

Unlike my daughter, my son didn't want to do his school work, and this didn't surprise me. I'd observed him prior to Pre-K. He wasn't all that interested in things like Sesame Street, and while my daughter would even watch Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, my son loathed that show. He did, however, love Barney, with all its big movements. That disturbed me, but I recovered.

In addition, he resisted my teaching him his alphabet. Didn't care much for my trying to teach him anything while reading to him either, and avoided any effort to teach him to read. Yet he did learn to read, not as early as my daughter did, but still ahead of schedule and in his own way.

My son's is big on doing things his own way. As much as I hoped my son would respond to rules and routine the way my daughter responded, he didn't. Some people will say this is because he's a boy and she's girl. To some degree that's true, but my friend has a daughter, a contemporary of my daughter, who behaved very much like my son, and I have another friend with two sons, no daughters, who's also observed temperament from birth.

How I earned my gray hair

The solution to his avoiding schoolwork and not doing homework was to get tough about his accomplishing tasks. That meant consistency on my part, not handing down lots of punishments, but staying on his case, reminding him and also sitting with him while he did he did his work. I assure you, this was a painful experience for me. My son challenged most of my counsel and help, but not by being rude and disrespectful. Oh, no, he wanted to have a quiet debate about how his way was better. Forever the lawyer.

I'd love to say I was consistently wonderful at providing structure, but I wasn't. However, my son who enjoys doing things in his own way, got tired of my staying with him until he finished homework. He soon learned that if he didn't want me to babysit him through his homework, he'd have to do it on his own and not have me hear from teachers about incomplete work. At age 16, having matured, he does his homework now without much prodding. He even brought home an above average report card recently and was quite proud of himself.

Furthermore, despite my having to face other mothers who told me that my child may be hyperactive and too unruly when he was a toddler and slightly older, I now get the following comment about him: "He's so well-mannered and polite." I've been hearing that compliment since his third-grade year.

Actually, I started hearing that comment even before his third-grade year. I heard it when he entered first grade and started going to classmate's homes, but I remember his fourth-grade teacher in particular. She told me he was very bright, but she also said, "He's so considerate of others. I've never seen a child bump into another child and say, 'Excuse me.'" While his father, who is my ex-spouse, and I may take some credit for teaching manners, I know this tendency toward politeness is also part of my son's temperament. He's sensitive and tends to be shy, not around family, but around strangers.

Neither of my children are strict conformist, but my son's more vocal and active when resisting pressure to conform. He's more stubborn, and is a natural negotiator. This doesn't mean I give up and let him get away with not doing the things he should do. Sometimes, because he's the way he is, I've had to be tougher with him than I've been with my daughter. I've had to be tougher for no other reason than my son will repeatedly try to work around me and do it his own way even when his own way is proving disastrous.

He's the child who's standardized test scores suggest he should be an "A" student, but he's not. He's the one who's always said to me after being corrected, "Come on, Mom. Do I have to be perfect?"

"No," I'd answer. "You don't have to be perfect, but you should do your best."

Work with your child according to his/her nature.

If your child has the kind of temperament that causes him/her to be naturally productive and industrious, then what a blessing. Still, you may have to help such a child guard against becoming too regimented and a workaholic. If your child has a temperament that makes him/her too sensitive, then while you may observe some benefits to sensitivity, you know that the world doesn't revolve around anyone's sensitivity. The child will have to adjust and as the parent, you must guide him/her toward adjustment.

So, my children are different. They came here different. But I want the same things for each of them, to live reasonably happy, productive lives. So, for each child, I've had to adjust my parenting style and my own tendencies according to my child's temperament, according to what will bring out the best in my child. It's a lesson in love that I've learned by doing.

For more information about children and natural temperament, please visit this article at Ohio State University by Kathy K. Oliver, M.S.

And for more about the "happy gene," visit this link at The Telegraph

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


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