Understanding your family temperament

Understanding your family temperament

Is your child easily distracted? Highly sensitive to noise, perhaps? Happy-go-lucky or prone to sulk? Research suggests temperament is innate and, as Miriam McCaleb explains, a wise parent observes their children’s differences and duly meets their needs.

Differences and similarities between people can be explained in a variety of ways, but one really useful lens to use when we’re considering the variables between us is the one that comes with an understanding of temperament research. If you have ever wondered about the ways that your kids are different from one another, then an understanding of temperament might help. If you have ever wondered how people with the same parents, the same influences, or the same environment can have real variation in the ways they encounter the world, then read on.


Perhaps consider your siblings; think about the ways you are the same or different from the folks you grew up with. You might have shared a room (even a womb!), but you are likely able to identify ways you are fundamentally different, as well as ways you’re the same. What’s up with that?

Perhaps a temperament assessment will illuminate. Research was famously published by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess in the late 1960s, after years of observation, and has been duplicated many times since. The following list covers nine temperamental traits, as based on the work of Thomas and Chess. These traits are believed to be observable throughout a person’s lifespan, beginning in the first months of life. It is thought that we all fall somewhere along a continuum for each of these traits, and –this is crucial –that there is no right or wrong way to be with any of these things. There is no good, there is no bad –there is only different. We’ll come back to that.

For now, let’s check out the scales that follow… 

Family temperament scales
You might like to choose a different coloured pen for each family member, and circle the number that applies to your first impression of their position on each of the nine traits. This will give you a multicoloured snapshot of your family's unique temperamental landscape. It will give the adults lots to talk about (“Maybe that's why...?”) and parents a good reason to think deliberately about the care they’re providing for their littlies.

Activity level

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sample questions:
■Does my body command me to move or invite me to be at rest?
■How active is my child?
■Is she a wriggly baby?
■Does my partner have a hard time sitting still for long periods?

Sensitivity level

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sample questions:
■How much do I notice humming lights, variations of temperature, or scratchy labels in my clothes?
■Does sunlight in my baby’s eyes bother her a lot, a bit, or not at all?


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sample questions:
■ Is my baby likely to observe a new person, toy or place for a while, or will she crawl toward it immediately?
■ At a playgroup, business meeting or cocktail party (remember those?) do I meet new people easily or hang back?

Biological rhythms

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Sample questions:

■ Is this a person who tends to get tired at fairly consistent times?
■ Do I get hungry around the same time each day?
■ Can I predict my daughter’s daily toileting schedule?


Issue 31Temperament2

sample questions:

■ If I'm having a conversation and can hear another conversation on the periphery, do I lose my train of thought?
■ Can my child focus on work/play when there are other things going on in the room?



Issue 31Temperament2

sample questions:

■ Is a 1000 piece puzzle my idea of a good time, or are 12 pieces more than enough?
■ How soon is my partner's urge to try a different strategy (or quit) when things aren't working out?
■ When my child has the opportunity for uninterrupted play, will she stay with one game or zoom between activities?


Intensity of reaction

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sample questions:

■ How high are my child’s highs? 
■ How low are my lows?



Issue 31Temperament2

sample questions:

■ How quickly do I adjust to change?
■ Am I thrown by a traffic detour or a new piece of software?
■ What would my preschooler think of a rearranged bedroom? New food?



Issue 31Temperament2

sample questions:

■ Is my typical daily demeanour smiley or grumpy?
■ When my child rolls out of bed does she tend toward upbeat or downbeat?


A fitting approach
A concept referred to as Goodness of Fit encourages us to think about the way we care, in line with temperament research. I was lucky enough to study under the WestEd Education Laboratory in California and to become certified in their Program for Infant Toddler Care (PITC), which teaches temperament and other child development topics, to teachers and carers in the USA. To borrow their words: “There is Goodness of Fit when we handle a child and make demands in a manner that enables the child to meet the demands successfully. There is Poorness of Fit when the parent’s or caregiver’s expectations are beyond the child’s temperamental abilities”.

Goodness of Fit does not mean that we have to be just like our children in order to best care for them, but it does require us to meet them where they are, and honour their inborn temperament. Research consistently points to Goodness of Fit as being vital in building a healthy relationship and creating a healthy self-image.

For example, imagine a 10-month-old baby boy who rates high on the scale for sensitivity. For him, the loud noises of his sister’s video game are overwhelming, the smell of Grandad's aftershave makes a farewell kiss hard work, and having socks that are too tight (you know: red marks around chunky wee ankles) is just about unbearable. If that 10-month-old is cared for by a mum who is at the low end of the sensitivity continuum, she might not even notice those things herself. She might barely hear the video game, and fail to notice the aftershave. If she doesn’t tend to feel irritated by too-tight clothing, she might not consider the discomfort that those red elastic marks represent on her baby boy’s ankles.

This doesn’t mean that mama is a meanie or a monster. It just means she’s used to experiencing the world the way that she experiences it. But, if that mama is aware of temperament and has taken time to observe her son and wonder – just wonder – where he might sit along the various continuums, she will be in a much better position to meet him where he is, and to provide Goodness of Fit.

In this example, mum does not need to change anything about her expression of her own temperament, nor does she need to try and change anything about her son; there is nothing wrong with being sensitive to external stimuli. It just means she pays attention to those details for her son. If he’s cranky she might think, “Oh, the light is shining right in his eyes. That might not bother me, it might not have bothered his sister, but it bothers him!”. So she says “Hang on love, I’ll move that lamp for you”.

Here are a couple of other examples of considering temperament in order to strive for Goodness of Fit.

A highly active parent might have to amend their preferred activity plan for their child who prefers to sit and read. Not all the time, maybe, but just with an acceptance that says, “It’s okay to experience the world in the way that you experience it!”. The parent who prefers to hang back and observe might have to learn radical self-acceptance as he parents a daughter who barrels up to introduce herself to strangers at the playground.

This concept is key, because providing Goodness of Fit has been associated with some really important outcomes, even the development of self-regulation.

So, if we’re talking about a highly distractible child, and you’re trying to get her dressed and out the door to kindergarten, it would be a display of temperamentally-aware, Goodness-of- Fit-ish parenting to turn off the television and allow her to concentrate on the task at hand. Poorness of Fit might look like expecting your daughter to focus on getting dressed while Doc McStuffins is doing her thing in the background, even though this is a child with an inborn tendency toward being highly distractible.

Over time, these conscious, repeated experiences can really contribute to a child's sense of self. Accepting a child's expression of the nine traits in the way we accept our child's brown eyes, or left-handedness, goes a long way to communicate to them that they are just fine.

If a child is consistently labelled, criticised or belittled for their inborn traits, it can be really unhelpful. It's the modern-day version of slapping a child's knuckles for picking up the pen with her left hand. Uncool.

Culture, personality and temperament
Alright, so it’s typical that we would all read those traits and run them through the filter of our own culture and our own experience. Perhaps we think being highly distractible is a failing, or maybe we can’t help but feel a bit judgey as we imagine someone with intense reactions feeling their high highs and low lows. There is the potential for smugness as we consider where we (or our kids) sit on the continuum.

You might have even got away with a quiet bit of judging in the past, in your life before kids. Temperament is another way that parenting will keep us honest and make us humble! We cannot predict how our babies will unfurl, or how baby number three might express herself in contrast to her big brothers.

Remember, there is no good or bad in the expression of these traits. We just are the way we are. So are our children.

Over time, people may learn to amend their innate way of being in order to get along more easily with others. I know that my default setting is generally mildly Grouchy with a tendency toward Melancholy. (Mood: negative). However, most people don't know that about me.

I have learned that if I smile more, practise gratitude and 'fake it till I make it' in terms of projecting a sunshiny mood, I tend to generate a more positive response in others. Over time, this has contributed towards making me a more positive person in terms of my mood, but it doesn’t amend my deepest, truest expression of my temperament. I'm a surly girly who is also a happy, grateful mama. Both things are true.

This fits with the equation as described by Peter Mangione, co-creator of PITC: “Temperament plus experience equals personality”. So, while we might use our life experience to work with our innate temperaments, it is unhelpful to deny their existence. And they're not good, they're not bad, they just are what they are.

One final point, friends, from the wonderful Dr Ron Lally, also from PITC. When speaking on the subject of temperament, he reminds us that, “Fairness to children is not treating each child the same”. The challenge for parents, then, is to practise some radical acceptance around these temperamental traits. Self-acceptance and acceptance of our children's way of being, too.


Miriam McCaleb has been a kindergarten teacher, a university lecturer and is a certified trainer for PITC. She is mama to two great girls. Understanding temperament has helped her realise that her husband's tendency to listen to music, work on the computer and watch television all at once is not an act of war. She's just highly sensitive to external stimuli, he's not, and both are okay! Visit Miriam at www.baby.geek.nz.

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