A Child’s Temperament Is Not Destiny: Parenting Matters

Last updated on June 22nd, 2016 at 11:03 am

temperament-is-not-destinyThere was a great article I read recently written by a pediatrician who described each child as “a different assignment.” No truer words have been spoken by someone who deals with children every day. Within the range of normal children’s development, there is a huge variation in kids’ temperaments, personalities, and sensitivities. Do you ever wonder how your little “assignment” will turn out as an adult? Do you worry that his/her difficult temperament must be a sign of hard times ahead?

Luckily research has examined some of these questions and the results fall on the side of parents.

A child’s temperament does matter, but parenting also matters a lot.

Researchers from Indiana University wanted to look at how babies with different temperaments (e.g., difficult, easy) ended up doing socially and academically by the time they reached first grade and what, if any, role parenting played in this process. Previously, some people had thought that a baby with a difficult temperament would have more difficulty adjusting to school later in life.

These researchers studied 1,364 children from birth to first grade, along with their parents. The children were given a temperamental classification (e.g., difficult, easy) at 6 months of age. Mothers’ parenting style was observed several times over the course of the study with areas such as warmth and age-appropriate control being examined. Lastly, children’s adjustment to first grade was considered in areas such as academic competence and social skills.

The findings were very enlightening: children who were labeled as having a difficult temperament as infants had as good as or better grades and social skills in first grade as children not labeled as difficult if their mothers provided good parenting. In other words, parenting matters! This is probably not a huge surprise to many people, but it’s interesting to see the research to back it up. Not surprisingly, children with difficult temperaments who received less-than-optimal parenting fared worse in first grade than other children.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study is the fact that researchers believe that children with difficult temperaments are more sensitive to both positive and negative parenting.

That is, they were more likely (than children with non-difficult temperaments) to adjust poorly to first grade if they experienced negative parenting, but they were also more likely to perform well in first grade if they received excellent parenting. Although this is just one study, it makes a lot of sense. Children with difficult temperaments are thought to be extra sensitive to the external environment and find it harder to regulate themselves. Scientists are learning to understand the difference between babies with varying degrees of nervous system sensitivity.

Researchers believe this is one piece in understanding how some kids can experience extreme challenges such as parental loss or poverty and still thrive. Within a context of responsive caregiving, even temperamentally sensitive children can be resilient in the face of challenges, even perhaps more so than those with an “easy” temperament.

This research sends an optimistic message to parents. What you do really matters! Children with more sensitive temperament may strain your parenting muscles but the “payoff” is higher too. If your child has a difficult temperament, approaching him/her with sensitivity and warmth can make a huge difference.

Source: Stright, A. D., Gallagher, K. C., & Kelley, K. (2008). Infant temperament moderates relations between maternal parenting in early childhood and children’s adjustment in first grade. Child Development, 79, 186-200.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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