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How Knowing Your Kid's Temperament Can Help You Be a Better Parent

Parenthood is more of a learning experience than I ever could have imagined. There’s no instruction manual, no road map. It’s like being thrown off a cliff into the ocean, and being told that you not only have to learn how to swim, you have to figure out how to build a boat with a stick and a rubber band. In many cases, there are two of you. But whether you’re alone, have a partner, or have a whole village of help, you’re in for a sink-or-swim education—and sinking isn’t an option.

One of the most surprising things I learned was apparent from the first week: human nature is so much more “nature” than I ever thought. Children are vastly different from one another, and while we as parents can help teach them how to function in the world, we can’t change who they are at their core. Did the people who came up with the “tabula rasa” theory spend any time with kids? Because that idea is ludicrous to me.

My experience as C’s mom has been vastly different than the experience of any other parent I know. On some level I’m still convinced that babies who slept through the night at three weeks are aliens, but I can admit (reluctantly) that it’s more likely a difference in temperament.

There’s no instruction manual for kids, but knowing your child’s temperament can really help you parent. I strongly believe that every child should be parented with empathy and sensitivity to his or her individual needs. Learning about your kid’s temperament can help you understand what your child’s needs are.

My first introduction to child temperament came early on. Desperate to figure out how to get C to sleep, I read a book by The Baby Whisperer, which grouped babies into four personality types. C definitely had some more cautious characteristics as a baby, but those were outshined by some other, more “spirited” qualities. For example, she was constantly throwing things off the changing table, and was very vocal about her opinions. Given her temperament, it was apparently no surprise that she had no desire to sleep.

As she inched closer to the one-year mark, though, things started to change. As her understanding of the world around her increased, she became much more careful. She was afraid of strangers and was so attached to me that any separation led to hysterics. So while her reaction to starting daycare was a lot worse than I expected, I can’t say it surprised me.

When I first thought about getting C help during our hideous daycare experience, my first call was to my HMO. They had a child temperament specialist on hand, who taught me a lot about C’s specific needs.

The specialist referred me to a website called The Preventative Ounce, which offers an in-depth quiz to figure out a kid’s temperament. The results are not only fascinating, but helpful, too: they provide hints about how to help your child interact with the world. It costs $10 and was totally worth it (just to clarify, I have no association with this site).

After learning more about C, the specialist said that her reaction to daycare was totally normal given her temperament, and explained why a nanny was a better solution for us. Every child has their personal challenges, and for C one of those challenges is a high level of stress in new situations. This is part of her inborn temperament, as is shyness. While no one knows the future for certain, C will probably have to deal with these challenges for the rest of her life (temperament is considered an innate part of a person’s personality). This is part of the reason I want to teach her coping skills early on.

When C and I have play dates with other kids, I am always fascinated by how different she is from the other kids. Some of them really push boundaries, or are really active (climbing on tables, for example). Every parent has a different challenge.

Personally, my job as a parent requires a lot of mindfulness. I phrase things a certain way because C picks up on everything, and I have to encourage her to share her feelings, because she tends to keep them to herself (especially with people she doesn’t feel comfortable around).

But honestly, I feel like I won the parenting lottery in a lot of ways—C is a lot like me, so relating to her is intuitive for me. And there are so many positives to having a sensitive kid. For one, she is incredibly kind – she comforts other kids when they’re upset. Hearing that from her school warms my heart, let me tell you. I just adore that kid.

So what about you guys? Even if this is the first time you’re hearing about temperament, you’ve probably noticed aspects of your kid’s personality that are more “nature” than “nurture.” What are your thoughts?