Want to Be a Better Parent? Consider Temperament.

·6 min read

My goal as a parenting editor and journalist has always been to offer evidence-based insights that will help make parenting easier. Notice that I said easier, not easy. Parenting is, and always will be a difficult task. And anyone who claims they have surefire solutions for a kid’s behavioral problems or future success is either disingenuous or misguided.

There is not, nor can there ever be a single elegant style of parenting that fits every family’s needs. That’s because every family is different — culturally, spiritually, and philosophically. And more than that, each member of the family is an individual with their own unique perspectives on the world.

That’s why parenting remains hard. It’s also why I was excited to speak to Dr. David C. Rettew, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine and author of the just-published book Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows About the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood.

Rettew’s premise is that parenting has a great deal of variables, particularly when it comes to a child’s temperament — essentially the innate behavioral traits a child uses to interact with the world. However, he says, if parents can decode a child’s unique temperament, it can help a parent tailor their parenting skills to their child and find more peace in the process. It’s a fascinating concept because so many of us just don’t talk about temperament. It’s the elephant in the room that makes my kid different than yours. In some instances that means they’re more difficult; in others, more joyous.

I spoke to Rettew about how a child’s temperament works against well-intentioned parenting advice, and what we can all do with this knowledge.

Parenting made complicated doesn’t seem like the best way to sell a book of parenting advice. Why put those complications up front?

The one size fits all approach to parenting doesn’t work because kids are temperamentally very very different from each other. Parents’ personalities are different. To apply very broad strokes to all kids really misses the mark.

Is that true even for parenting techniques that are backed by science?

Look. When you look at the scientific evidence about different parenting approaches, what you see is that they work for the average kid out of a sample of 100. But you’re missing a huge amount of variability. The research really indicates that the same parenting technique with one kid might give you a very different result for a different kind of kid. As people giving parenting advice we need to do a better job of taking into account that variability and really putting it front and center.

How do you reconcile that in your book?

My book tackles head-on the issue of kids being different and how parenting approaches to some degree need to be modified and tweaked for different kids. What I try to do is, in a very non-technical, non-jargony way, try to treat the reader as a mature adult trying to make the right decision. I lay out the evidence, help them understand their child’s personality, and choose what fits the child.

Your book is lightning focused on temperament. What exactly is temperament?

I look at temperament as the building blocks of personality. They describe the fundamental and basic behavioral patterns and ways a child interacts with their environment. Temperament traits include things like extroversion, how quickly kids can experience negative emotions, or regulatory ability.

Personality and temperament is to some degree inherited. If you have a more anxious kid, it’s possible that you may be a more anxious parent.

So a child’s temperament is a fixed trait?

These are all traits that have some genetic influence, some degree of stability over time and appear pretty early. Not that’s it’s destiny an extroverted infant becomes an extroverted adolescent, but you can at least see the beginnings of these traits pretty early in life.

How early can temperament be detected?

Some parents tell me they have noticed this behavior in the womb. I’m not sure if this is borne out in the data. But we certainly see that certain temperament-related behavior in toddlerhood is good at predicting behavior decades later. I don’t want to convey that the kid you see as a 2-year-old is exactly what you’re going to get as an adult, because environment plays a big role. There’s a lot of movement that can happen.

What does temperament do?

Based on a child’s temperament they are going to interpret and respond to the world in very different ways. Kids who are more anxious temperamentally may not respond to a louder more forceful parenting approach. It could scare them compared to a child that is more receptive to high stimulation and needs a more direct approach.

In the book, you talk about types of kids. What are the types and how do parents recognize a child’s temperament?

Temperament can be broken down into three main broad dimensions. One dimension is called “negative emotionality” which describes how quickly kids are brought to feel emotions like fear, sadness, and anger. There is extroversion, which talks about how active kids are and how much they like stimulation. And there’s “effortful control,” which is a regulatory dimension related to being able to keep your emotions in check. If you basically shuffle those dimensions and think of your kid as being high or low in those dimensions, you can figure out your kid’s type.

And how do you change your parenting style based on these types?

So one of the types is a more anxious type — high in negative emotionality and low in extroversion. It’s a pretty common type and when you have that type of kid it might steer your parenting decisions. Screens for example. These might be kids who see something violent in a movie and feel traumatized. You might want to think about their screen exposure in a different way.

Does this work for discipline too?

Well, compare anxious kids to kids I call the agitated group — high in extroversion and negative emotionality. This group might seek out situations that they can’t handle. So they might be prone to reactive aggression, becoming aggressive when they are uncomfortable. So with these kids more of the authoritarian styles may be counterproductive because it can actually make them more aggressive.

So it sounds like parents may have to work against their own temperament sometimes.

One of the things that I advocate for is to parent a little less reactively and a little bit more deliberately. Consider it like being a scientist. Instead of saying “This is who I am and this is how I do things,” take a step back and observe. Think about choices you might have. Try not to let your emotions heat up too much and have the flexibility to ask, “Is that approach working?” And if it’s not, then to have the flexibility to move. Think through your choices. Make one, and see if it works. If it doesn’t, then find a different technique.

You say that the people who give the most honest parenting advice will say “It depends.”

And it’s such a boring answer. You have to acknowledge that, but it’s a place to start. You don’t stop at “it depends.” You start there and have a conversation that is informative. All kids need love. All kids need limits. After that it gets complicated.

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