Symphony or Rock Opera? A Look at Temperament and How It Shapes Our Personalities

This post is the first in a two part series about temperament. Next week’s post will focus on the different temperament traits, so stay tuned.

I want to tell you a story about two babies. The first baby, Chloe, is easy-going and sleeps on a schedule. She laughs easily and isn’t phased by much. She sometimes goes through phases of separation anxiety, but most of the time she is happy around everyone, including strangers.

Baby number two, Cleo, is about as different from Chloe as a baby could be. Since the day she was born, she’s been a “fussy” baby. She loves to be held and hates being put down. She naps everyday, but it’s been hard to get her on a schedule, and sleep is still a struggle at night.

Now imagine these two babies are sisters. Better yet, they are twins. They have the exact same parents and same home environment. There’s nothing concrete to point to, the babies are just different and always have been. It boils down to their temperament.

What is temperament?

Temperament is the core set of traits that a person is born with. It’s like a genetic personality blueprint; it shapes your personal evolution, and you carry it with you for life. Temperament and personality aren’t the same thing, though. Personality is what develops based on the combination of temperament, socialization, and environmental factors. Personality is more fluid than temperament. If temperament is the blueprint, then personality is the finished home, complete with interior decoration and personal style.

David Rettew, child psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, suggests music as a metaphor for understanding temperament.* He shares that if you view a person as a piece of music, then temperament is the key in which it’s written. I would take this metaphor a step farther and say that temperament is like the musical score (AKA sheet music) for a specific musical composition. The key is one of several elements that define the piece on paper. These elements, which also include the time signature, dynamics, tempo, and actual written notes, are similar to temperament traits. When taken together, they define the type of music recorded in the score. You can look at a piece of sheet music and tell whether you are about to play a classical piece or jazz. Looking at a piece of sheet music does not tell you exactly how it will sound when it’s played, though. Every musician will bring something different to it, giving their interpretation of the piece its own personality. 

This kind of sounds like nature vs nurture…

Temperament definitely falls on the nature side of the nature vs. nurture debate. Personality, on the other hand, is more fluid and can be influenced by our social context. Rettew suggests that the nature vs. nurture debate is essentially over, and I agree. We understand more about personality, temperament, genetics, and environmental influence than we did when the question of nature or nurture originated. We know that the way a person turns out is a mix of both. Environment and genetics are both important, and we now understand that they can actually influence each other. When it comes to child development, this can be seen pretty clearly in the way we respond to children. If a child is easy going and joyful, they are very likely to get a joyful response from other people. Their joy is contagious. The flip side of this is that frustration, anger, and other “negative” emotions can be contagious, too.  In either case, the child’s emotional response is actually altering their environment.

Here’s the thing, though. Once you know about this, you can work to moderate it.

Understanding your own temperament and triggers is key. When you can make sense of your own hardwiring and you know what sets you off, you can start to assess how you well you fit with your child. Do you mesh well, or are they hardwired in a way that triggers you?

Identifying your triggers affords you the opportunity to learn how to moderate your reactions, and knowing your child’s tendencies allows you to teach them age-appropriate strategies for self-regulation.

Not really sure how to get started with all this? Let’s chat! Supporting parents in this work is what I do with my coaching clients. Pop over to the Coaching page to schedule a free 60 minute get-to-know-you call.

*The specific article I’m referencing here is “Temperament in Children: The Key in Which Their Song Is Written,” accessible at https://www.letsgrowkids.org/blog/temperament-children-key-which-their-song-written

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