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Accepting the Unique Temperament of Your Child

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“Each of us shines in a different way, but this doesn’t make our light less bright.”

—Unknown

“Try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label. Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds. You can’t decide what kind of flower you’ll get or in which season it will bloom.”

—A modern educator (as quoted in “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-reliant Children” by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.)

חנוך לנער על פי דרכו…“—משלי כ”ב:ו”

“Bring up each child in accordance with his/her way…”

—Proverbs 22:6

I often note that my training as a psychologist does not make me a better parent; however, being a parent has humbled me and has definitely influenced my clinical skills as a psychologist. Case in point: Almost eight years ago I was blessed with the birth of my second child, a son. As any parent who marvels at the development of a baby’s emerging personality, I found myself noting aloud how different my son is when compared to his older sister. Whereas my daughter was more hesitant and less interested in exploring her environment, my son was climbing out of his high chair and was quite adept at locating any exposed wires in the house. Apparently, it got to a point that my parenting misstep of comparing siblings became an issue for my daughter. One day, after noting my son’s hearty appetite relative to my daughter’s picky attitude towards food, my daughter emphatically stated the following. “Mommy, the baby and I are not the same. Don’t you know Hashem made each one of us differently?” In my daughter’s moment of sheer frustration, she managed to highlight the obvious. Firstly, comparing siblings is not the best route to take in establishing a positive sibling relationship. In this case, more importantly, my daughter was innocently reminding me that each child has their God-given intrinsic strengths and is truly unique. Upon sharing this anecdote with friends and families, the overwhelming theme of the feedback I received was that it often takes the birth of a second child to fully appreciate how different children are from birth and the true power of inborn temperaments.

Temperament consists of the inborn and innate qualities that children bring to the world. Researchers have found that temperament has biological, neurological and physiological underpinnings that impact a child’s mood, ability to calm one’s self, activity level, styles of learning and their strengths and vulnerabilities. Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who pioneered research in the field of emotional intelligence writes: “Some people find themselves in emotional tumult even in reaction to mundane events, while others remain unperturbed under the most trying circumstances. These levels of feeling characterize a person’s entire life; those with the deepest lows also have the loftiest highs, the research shows. And differences between people seem to emerge early in childhood, if not from birth, and remain a major mark of character.” Wendy Mogel beautifully echoes a similar sentiment and describes a child’s temperament as a “God-given blueprint for his personality; he couldn’t change it even if he wanted to.”

Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas conducted research which contributed to the field of temperament, child development and parenting practices. In their studies of infants, Chess and Thomas discovered even from birth the temperaments of infants differed significantly. These differences were apparent in the ways children responded to their parents as well as to their immediate environment. Some infants adapted well to changes in their surroundings, while others were easily upset by any changes in routine. Some infants were more difficult to please, comfort and satisfy. Some children derived pleasure at being cuddled or held, while others appeared tense. Through close observations in the infants they studied, Chess and Thomas noted a pattern for three types of temperaments. The three types of temperaments that emerged were the “easy” child, the “slow-to-warm-up” child and the “difficult” child. These are clearly not precise categories and not all children fit into a specific niche, yet most children could potentially be compartmentalized by general type.

The goal is not to pigeonhole our children into rigid categories—a child can exhibit characteristics of one type of temperament in certain situations and different characteristics in other situations. The lesson to walk away with from the research of Chess and Thomas is the importance of acknowledging and accepting that children have different temperaments from birth. It is essential that we are aware of, appreciate and react appropriately to these differences, or we will have a challenging time raising resilient and emotionally stable children. If we do not learn to accept our children’s temperamental differences, we may have expectations for our children that they cannot achieve, which in turn can lead to greater stress, conflict and frustration.

In order to gain a better understanding of the importance of accepting and understanding our children’s temperamental differences, we can easily utilize the Torah as a point of reference. In Parshat Toldot, we find detailed descriptions of the innate personalities of Esav and Yaakov.  Esav is described as a איש יודע ציד איש שדה, a cunning hunter and a man of the field, whereas Yaakov is described as איש תם ישב אהלים, a whole-hearted man, a dweller in tents (בראשית כ”ה:כ”ז). Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on this phrase gives critical advice to every parent concerning the importance in appreciating your child’s temperament when raising and parenting a youngster. Rav Hirsch writes that the reason the sharp contrast exists between Esav and Yaakov “…was caused not only by their natural tendencies, but also by mistakes in their upbringing. As long as they were little, no one paid attention to the differences in their hidden natures; they were given the same upbringing and the same education… To attempt to educate a Yaakov and an Esav together in the same classroom, in the same routines and in the same manner, to raise both of them for a life of study and contemplation, will inevitably mean to ruin one of the two… Had Yitzchak and Rivkah delved deeper into Esav’s nature, had they asked themselves at an early stage how even an Esav—with the strength, skills and courage latent within him—could be harnessed for God’s service…who knows what turn world history would have taken!” Unfortunately, ויגדלו הנערים, the lads grew up—it was only after the boys had grown to men that it was evident that using the same parenting approach with both boys and not considering their individual differences further exacerbated Esav’s temperamental challenges.

Many psychologists, researchers and Rambam himself notes in הלכות דעות that biology is not destiny. In other words, how a child expresses their temperament depends on a myriad of external factors, such as life experiences, training and external influences. Even though we cannot choose our child’s temperament, we can help our child understand her temperament, emphasize her strengths and provide her with guidance she needs to appropriately express herself. In this vein, the Torah illustrates that despite a child’s innate temperament, when properly channeled, an individual can rise above their natural proclivities. When Esav was born he was described as אדמוני , which translates to “ruddy.” Rashi explains that אדמוני is a temperamental indicator and is a sign that he will shed blood. The only other time in the entire תנ”ך  that the term אדמוני is used is to describe דוד המלך. The natural question we can ask is how is it possible that דוד המלך share this אדמוני quality with Esav? Rashi explains that both Esav and Dovid shared a natural proclivity towards bloodshed. Esav killed at will and Dovid would only kill with the consent of the Sanhedrin. Whereas Esav did not learn to channel this innate desire in a healthy or redeemable fashion, Dovid was able to direct this inborn temperamental desire towards a venue that was socially accepted and Sanhedrin-sanctioned.

As parents, we have tremendous power in shaping and helping steer our children’s inborn qualities. It is so important that in doing so we do not lose sight of the importance of accepting our children for who they are and not what we want them to be. Acceptance does not mean allowing youngsters to engage in unacceptable behaviors or not disciplining them when mistakes are made. Acceptance is appreciating and recognizing their unique characteristics and personality traits and not criticizing them for emotional responses that may be a component of their unique makeup. Acceptance is recognizing that our children may not be carbon copies of ourselves, and that some children’s temperaments and behaviors may not match our own. It is essential that we create for children an atmosphere in which they feel safe and secure and that children perceive parents as sources of unconditional love. One of the most generous gifts we can give our children is to help them understand how special they are in our eyes, respect them for the qualities in which they have been naturally endowed and to accept them for who they are.

By Dr. Eva Lazar

Dr. Eva Lazar is the director of The Lazar Center in Teaneck, NJ. She is a licensed clinical psychologist, as well as a certified educational supervisor, school psychologist and licensed K-12 principal. Dr. Lazar has over 20 years of experience in the education and mental health fields, working in public, independent and Jewish day schools. She is a respected clinician and expert in child and adolescent therapy, providing evidence-based psychotherapy to individuals and families. Dr. Lazar offers a variety psychological and educational services, including cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy and social skills groups. In order to provide a comprehensive treatment plan to children and adolescent clients, Dr. Lazar offers parent guidance sessions and works closely with school staff. Dr. Lazar lectures nationally and conducts professional development and parent workshops. If you would like additional information, please contact Dr. Lazar at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or at 201-530-7475.

 

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