Temperament Type: Help for Understanding Your Children

As a parent have you, with wringing of hands, looked at one of your children and thought, “I don’t understand how you can be so different from the rest of us”?

Most of us at some time question why our offspring are the way they are. If the scenario goes beyond hand-wringing, we may lay down the law to the “different” child and say: “You will change!” And does the child really, truly change? In most cases, the answer is a loud “HA!” So we struggle along, hoping for the best, and reaching deep inside ourselves to understand the “different” one.

But there is hope, not for changing our children’s behavior, not for excusing it, but for better understanding it. Psychologists are now revisiting a centuries-old answer to the question of differences. Back in the fifth century B.C. Hippocrates believed that people generally fall into one of four groups of temperament. Over the centuries some scholars rejected the concept, but others kept this theory alive.

Today most students of human behavior use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® to look at characteristics shared by large numbers of people. The Myers-Briggs is a painless (all answers are ok; none is wrong) evaluation tool available through counselors trained to give it. It places the test-taker into one of 16 broad categories, or types, based on combinations of eight letters: I for Introvert, E for Extravert, S for Sensing, N for iNtuition, F for Feeling, T for Thinking, P for Perceiving, and J for Judging.

All sixteen types are a bit much to talk about here, but lots of resources are available at libraries and bookstores if you’re interested in knowing the full story. (Temperament Research Institute is on the web or call 1-800-700-4874.)

For now, look at the basic four—called SP, SJ, NT, and NF—as described by psychologist David Keirsey. Keirsey believes that each type represents a pattern. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each of them:

•    SP—Likes action and a feeling of living on the edge, makes decisions quickly by picking up cues from others, values freedom and independence; good at persuading others.
•    SJ—Traditionalist, dependable, likes to feel a sense of belonging, follows rules; strong sense of responsibility.
•    NT—Wonders about the world and what makes things tick, values ideas, wants to be competent; often detached in dealing with people.
•    NF—Likes people, usually upbeat, values integrity; frequently takes on role of catalyst; empathetic; likes harmony among people.

Do these types change as a child grows up? Not really. No one acts out a canned script, but in general people stay true to their type. Of course, if a child has been disciplined to perform according to a parent’s style rather than their own, the child may change and live life in a style more natural to him or her. Most adult children, however, still have many of the same basic characteristics that they had when toddlers.

The following sketches of four adults illustrate how their present behavior reflects their lifelong types.

•    Trish, an SJ, was an orderly child who always looked forward to finding a new diary in her Christmas stocking. Class president all four years of high school, she was also a leader in college. Today she blends her life with spouse and two children with a busy career.
•    Beth, an SP, was never much of a scholar. Always on the edge of being in trouble, she could have made good grades but was more interested in placating anyone who questioned or criticized her behavior. Now with two children, she and her husband have invested in a risky but exciting business venture.
•    Leesha, an NF, outgoing and friendly, has always been sensitive and warm-hearted. More concerned with her friends than her grades, she nevertheless made good on her scholastic commitments. Idealistic, she looks for good in everyone and thrives on the relationships she now enjoys, with spouse and son at home, and at work as an executive secretary.
•    Jim an NT, was easily fascinated by take-apart toys as a young child and later with mechanical things. He rarely sought attention from others in his class. His grades reflected serious concentraton in areas that interested him and good work in other areas. Today he is unmarried and a computer software specialist dedicated to his work.

Your son or daughter also has characteristics that are unique to his or her temperament, characteristics that will tend to follow them life long. Look at your children with an eye to discovering these characteristics. As on-going observation revises or confirms your initial sense of their type, use these suggestions, based on what you see:

•    Keep in mind that typing offers useful guidelines, not personality profiles cast in concrete. You’ll see ways a child fits and doesn’t fit their primary pattern.
•    Accept your child’s basic personality. Young children, wanting to please, may act as you want, but in the long run they will be happier if they act according to type. You run the risk of their rebelling and the havoc that brings if you try too hard to dominate them. Type, however, is no excuse for poor behavior.
•    Base discipline on type. Ask the NF to go to their room. Take a favorite toy away from the NT. Explain to the SJ exactly how you want them to behave and when. Take away some of the SP’s freedom (if you can catch him or her!).
•    Recognize one type isn’t superior to another. The boisterous SP may shine at selling wrapping paper for the school while the quiet, studious SJ sneers at the prospect of hawking wares.
•    In the early grades help your child’s teacher understand their type. About 40% of the children in a class will be SPs; almost two-thirds of teachers are SJs. Does this often cause classroom problems? You bet.
•    Consider what type you are and what that type adds to the parent-child relationship. If you are an SJ and like things neat and orderly but your child is a slap-dash SP, instead of demanding that their room be kept ship-shape every day, allow the child to shut the door on a mess from time to time.
•    Never forget that your child is an individual. When in doubt, let your personal knowledge of the child be your guide. If you observe your children carefully, you can spot their basic types and use the information to help them grow into happy, successful (whatever that means to them) adults. Eventually, when your children are capable, competent adults, but very different from each other, you can accept the questioning comments of friends, smile, and say, “Vive la différence!”

by Mary Bowman-Kruhm