Temperament Is Everything

The Plague of Persistence

 I “knew” about temperament from studying child development and working with children my whole life. But then I had my own children. Apparently 40% of children fall into the “easy” temperament category. In real life, categories capture only part of the picture, but when you have more than one child, you can definitely grasp just how different temperaments can be. What the child development world can miss is the impact temperament can have on parent development -- the depth of parenting doubt, insecurity, and crisis that can come with parenting a non-“easy” child (I don’t love this distinction, but I’m using the terminology that’s out there). I bring you my very honest experience to drive home the point especially for others with non-“easy” temperament-ed children: it’s not you, it’s temperament.

Ask my family, friends, and colleagues. I am known for my calm, warm, patient, gentle demeanor. Sometimes it bothers me because I don’t want it to come across as being a pushover, and I consider myself assertive and strong. But in general, I am even-tempered and really good at keeping a face of still waters even in times of waves churning inside.

This is why it is practically an identity crisis for me to parent a child with a starkly different temperament. It brings out parts of me that seem like not me – reactive, unsympathetic, frustrated, and stuck. And honestly – I feel like I’m failing at the part of my life I value most.

It’s important I start this narrative about my only son, my youngest child, with as full a representation as possible. Although the purpose of this is to share my parenting challenge as a way to support other parents, I don’t want the magic of who my child is to become lost in focusing on our tough moments.

This is why it is practically an identity crisis for me to parent a child with a starkly different temperament.

At our nightly family meals, this 4-year-old regularly has us belly laughing with his natural instinct for entertaining. He asks questions that floor me with their astute observation of the world around him. His sensitivity to others’ emotions gives him a special sweetness I hope stays with him as he grows up as a boy in this world. And yes, his single-minded focus on his goals — his persistence — shows a determination and focus that makes me proud.

I have great hopes for the person he will become once he ages out of the developmental constraints of toddlerhood and preschool years. Cognitive function (like reasoning ability) and emotion regulation are new buds in his developing brain, firing misconnections haphazardly as time and yes, parenting, help prune the most healthy and adaptive connections. As we guide him through these pruning years, however, the days can be long . . .

I had not envisioned a recent sunny, crisp Fall Sunday afternoon turning into an hour of aggravating back-and-forth with my son to get him to rest. It seemed simple on the surface: he was exhausted from a bad night of sleep, melting down at every small disappointment, so he needed to rest his body before going on a bike ride outing, or that outing would fall somewhere between disastrous and dangerous.

This child, with his single-dimpled cheek and endless eyelashes, doesn’t give up. On anything. Ever. It’s not until we find a creative way for him to feel like he got what he wanted that he bends. At one point in our negotiation to rest, he offered to sleep and draw at the same time.

In the temperament world, this is called persistence. Add a dose of intensity (another temperamental trait), and my husband and I are expending energy most days to get through even the simplest routines. Sometimes we know how to be pre-emptive to best get cooperation, other times it doesn’t matter if we do everything “right,” and other times life just doesn’t go as planned, because, life.

The other night, this child actually ate his dinner without complaints (miracles do happen), got along with his sisters, and got ready for bed without delay tactics. All signs of a well-rested, well-fed, good-mood day. Then we went downstairs for our customary small snack before bed. He became fixated on fixing a toy I didn’t know how to fix before he would even entertain starting the snack process.

I know the value of truly empathizing with my child to understand his experience in the moment – both for him to feel understood, and for my response to be more effective. “You really want this toy fixed. You are very frustrated.”  There are times in my life as Mom that this feels extraordinarily hard to do because I am exhausted.

In this toy-fixing moment of persistence, I was SO close to the part of the night when the house goes quiet with all 3 kids in bed. After 14 hours of nonstop parenting, working, and parenting, we have an hour and a half to just stop and be, before we fall into bed. And this child’s persistence and inability to problem-solve (“let’s have snack and then go fix the toy upstairs” went nowhere) meant the shortening of each delicious minute of that time.

I actually said to him, “why can’t you be just a little flexible?” I said this to a 4-year-old. That’s about the time my husband came down to tag me out.

I have been reading a popular parenting book, Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D. I may have told myself it was to familiarize myself for the sake of my blogging, but it wasn’t. I needed some self-help parenting.

A big part of the book – again I already “knew” this – was how well child and parent temperament fit. The book explores several domains that constitute “spirited,” and the rating scale used in the book actually ranks my son on the borderline of “spunky” and “spirited” (based on mine and my husband’s scores). The score for my temperament, however, is way lower on the scale. That means my son and I have to work harder together sometimes, although she also points out that being too similar has it’s own challenges.

Pirate of Persistence

Pirate of Persistence

A few nights after my bedtime snack breakdown, I was solo parenting after dinner. The kids were doing their “quiet” time before bed, which usually doesn’t involve too much quiet, but it’s decompression time in their rooms before sleep. My oldest came downstairs extremely frustrated after several attempts at drawing a pirate for her 4-year-old brother because he kept telling her it wasn’t how he wanted it.

I empathized with her experience with him, explaining it’s about him and not about her, giving her tips on how to handle it, etc. In the middle of my pep talk, my son appeared at the top of the stairs and said, “It’s okay sister – you can come back – it’s how I want it now.”  She hadn’t changed anything of course, but he showed some capacity to adapt and move forward.

This gave me hope. Hope that all of our efforts to work with our son’s temperament, to better “fit” our parenting approach with his needs, could actually be succeeding. I have never trained for a marathon (and never will) but I imagine it’s similar. Training is slow and steady until weeks later of building up to it, you can run for an ungodly amount of time. Only in this case, it’s slow and steady for years, and no runner’s high or huge plate of pasta at the end (or is it the beginning? See, not my thing).

In writing and sharing this, I hope it sends out a sort of bat signal of support and compassion to all other parents struggling in the temperament equivalent of crossfit training. I’m sorry. It’s hard. It’s okay to not be “perfect” because it’s really exhausting and you’re doing your best. And you’re not alone.

I also hope to nudge parents who may have won the temperament lottery with their own child or children (the more you have, the lower your odds!), that your well-meaning advice to other parents may fall flat. I recently followed a suggestion to try whispering instead of raising my voice on the sixth time of telling my son to put on his shoes. He responded by punching my leg and yelling, “I don’t love you!”

Trust me, in most parent-child relationship scenarios, temperament is behind the steering wheel. It’s not a barometer of your competence or success in parenting. But any small victories figuring out how to work with non-“easy” temperament, should definitely be celebrated as an accomplishment of parental fortitude.

As mentioned at the beginning, I am endlessly proud of and awed by my son. He constantly makes us laugh with a precocious sense of humor and comedic timing. He can figure out problems with creative solutions that don’t occur to me. He shows empathy and loyalty in natural ways that will make him the kind of person we all hope we raise. And he never gives up. Ever. It is quite impressive when I’m not in the middle of it.