Temperament in Action
Almost every parent with more than one child knows that no two children are alike. Despite the same parental genes and the same home environment, children vary in looks, in interests, in temperament, and so much more. Sometimes the differences are subtle, and sometimes they are quite obvious. Consider the Smith family.
Sasha made her presence felt from the moment she was born. This third-born baby squirmed when held, and was a restless sleeper. She learned to run almost as soon as she could walk, and despite baby-proofing the house as much as possible, the family had to watch Sasha carefully. She seemed to get into everything! Mealtimes were challenging, because Sasha only tolerated her high chair for a few minutes before demanding release. Car rides, which had always put the older children to sleep, became a nightmare. Sasha fought the confinement of her carseat and screamed lustily the entire time. When in a group of other children, such as at church or in large family gatherings, Sasha frequently got overexcited, revved up, and wild. Despite their experience with two other children, Mr. and Mrs. Smith found themselves surprised and somewhat bewildered by Sasha’s energy level. She never seemed to stop moving!
Sasha’s paediatrician gave her a clean bill of health, and reassured her parents that this level of activity was not uncommon. It was, in fact, a key part of her temperament—the inborn way Sasha was naturally responding to the physical environment and the people around her. Researchers have described at least nine major temperament traits, one of which is “activity level”. Neither Sasha nor her parents can fundamentally change her high activity level. Raising Sasha would be a challenge, however; her parents would need to become experts.
Being an expert parent doesn’t mean being a perfect parent. It means learning all you can about your child’s temperament; accommodating their needs; advocating for them when necessary; treating them with kindness, love, and understanding; and enjoying who they are. It doesn’t mean catering to a child’s every demand; it does mean making thoughtful child-rearing decisions that enable the child, and the family as a whole to navigate their life.
So, the Smiths searched for information, online and in print, to learn all they could about their daughter’s temperament. They also connected with a Facebook group of parents with highly-active children. It was such a comfort to communicate with people who had similar experiences! These parents shared advice and coping strategies, as well as the occasional
shoulder to cry on.
Based on what they discovered, the Smiths decided that their whole family, and especially Sasha, could benefit if they all incorporated more activity in their daily lives. Walks through their own neighbourhood, frequent visits to the playground, and family bike rides to explore further afield were simple and enjoyable ways for everyone to be active and to bond as a family. All three children were enrolled in swimming lessons, and each child wasencouraged to choose another one or two weekly activities that suited their own interests. Sasha developed a love of Taekwondo and dance; practising her moves at home provided a useful additional outlet for her energy.
Sasha’s parents recognized that staying seated for a full family meal was intensely uncomfortable for their daughter, so they began to use a digital timer. When the timer “dinged", Sasha could get up and and play for a few minutes, and then return to the table if she wasn’t finished eating. At first, they set it for just five minutes; this was well within Sasha’s ability to be successful. Then they began to gradually extend the time so that she couldlearn some control.
Staying in her carseat, although absolutely necessary, was also intensely uncomfortable. Sasha’s parents began experimenting with ways to make it less stressful for her, as well as for themselves. Having one parent sit beside her in the backseat helped. So did singing and doing the actions to children’s music; keeping a “surprise package” of new toys or games in the car to bring out when needed; and splitting up long trips into shorter hops punctuated by “body breaks” to allow Sasha to run.
The Facebook parents’ group had alerted the Smiths that daycare and elementary school could pose challenges for Sasha. Her brothers had thrived in a carefully-chosen centre with an excellent reputation; her parents naturally enrolled Sasha in the same one. Sadly, despite everyone’s best efforts, it took less than a month to realize that things were not working out. The centre’s director suggested that a home-based childcare arrangement might suit Sasha better. However, at 3:00 pm of her first day at a neighbour’s home, the caregiver called Mr. Smith to say she was quitting—Sasha was too hard to handle. Thankfully, the family eventually found an in-home daycare with woman who had a well-equipped playroom, a large backyard, and plenty of experience with her own highly-active child.
Sasha’s parents have already begun to talk to her about her temperament, using simple language she can understand. She needs to know that she is not “bad” or “weird”, she is merely someone who needs to move more frequently than some other children. This is who she IS, and they love her like that! Eventually, she will learn to recognize her own restlessness, or her need for movement, and how to ask for necessary breaks.
Although raising Sasha is often still exhausting, home life is not as chaotic as it used to be, and her parents are more comfortable in their role. Rather than wondering if there was something “wrong” with their child, or whether they themselves were poor parents, they understand the reason behind the behaviour. They, along with Sasha herself, will go on learning about her temperament and how it interacts with the family, the environment around them, and with others in the community. They are becoming experts.