Although the word "temperament" has no universal definition, it is generally used to describe individual differences in children or their behavioural styles. Thomas and Chess (1977) explain temperament as "the characteristic way the child experiences and relates to the environment." The best-known and most used view of temperament was developed in 1963 by Thomas, Chess, Birch, Hertzig and Korn.
Their nine characteristics describe temperamental traits outlining the behavioural styles that define a child's personality. These may help you better understand your own and your child's behaviour:
- Activity Level
This refers to the level of motor activity and the time involved in active versus inactive periods. While some children cannot sit still for a minute, others play for hours quietly with their toys.
This refers to how predictable or regular a child is in terms of biological functioning such as hunger, sleep-wake cycle and bowel elimination. For some children, bedtime and meal time run like clockwork, while others have little natural rhythm.
- Approach/Withdrawal/First Reactions
This refers to wariness, or how easily a child adapts to new experiences such as foods, people, places and clothes. Some are "plungers" and react enthusiastically to new things, while others immediately back off from the unfamiliar.
This applies to more long-term responses that a child has to new or changed situations and how the child becomes comfortable when changes occur. A child who adapts easily will need less time getting used to a new house or caregiver than a child who is less adaptable.
- Sensory Threshold/Sensitivity
Children's responses to differences in flavour, texture and temperature vary. Some highly sensitive children are over stimulated by noise, touch, bright lights, texture and the feel of clothes. Some children like to wear the same thing day after day, because it feels right.
- Intensity of Reaction
This refers to the energy level shown by a child when responding to something, whether positive or negative. Some children's emotions are intense and easy to read, while others express themselves far less clearly or loudly.
The amount of pleasant, joyful and friendly behaviour compared with unpleasant crying or unfriendly behaviour is indicative of a child's mood. Some children generally seem happy, while for others everything is a source of complaint.
This describes how outside stimuli (such as noise and activity) interfere with or change the direction of a child's present activity. Some children can attend to an activity with noise all around, while others need quiet to get anything done.
- Persistence/Attention Span
This refers to the amount of time a child spends on an activity despite interruptions or other hurdles. A persistent child may spend hours getting something just right.
The "goodness-of-fit" between a child's temperament and the expectations of his parent, as well as the temperament of this parent, are crucial. When the fit is poor, that is when expectations and temperaments do not mesh, problems can result, as the child and caregiver struggle to adapt to each other's rhythm.
Thomas A. & Chess S. (1977). Temperament and Development. New York: Brinner-Mazel.
Carey W.B. & McDevitt S.C. (1995). Coping with Children's Temperament. New York: Basic Books.