Nandita’s 10-year-old heart felt as cold as the old stone walls that lined her school corridor. She could not believe her eyes. As punishment for his wrongs, Rohit, her 7-year-old brother, was being dragged by his teacher down to the kindergarten section. Flushed with embarrassment, Nandita wanted to run away. She was the primary school captain, a model student, but she felt helpless and confused. She had often seen her sibling being punished at school, because his seemingly sluggish ways were misconstrued as stubbornness and laziness. Fortunately, they had loving and supportive parents who understood Rohit’s rich and imaginative, yet quiet temperament, and he finally grew into an accomplished professional, and a keen birdwatcher.
But why were they so remarkably different as little children? What made Nandita outwardly so capable at an early age, while Rohit appeared to be the runt of the litter? In my opinion, Nandita and Rohit inherited different ‘temperaments’ and this had a significant influence on their behaviour, especially as children. Dr Tim Lahaye, in his book Why We Act The Way We Do, explains that a combination of inborn, genetic traits, inherited from parents and grandparents alike, is what determines approximately 25 per cent of an individual’s behaviour. Therefore an understanding of your child’s unique temperament should be a part of your toolkit as a loving parent. Let us examine how the four temperaments of human personality, as originally classified by Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, can influence a child’s behaviour.
The Sanguine Child
I was born sanguine, the ideal child in the early years. Energetic and confident, I dazzled adults with my winsome smile and quick wit. I began childhood with a bang. Adults, according to Dr Lahaye, love sanguine children and sincerely believe they are “highly likely to succeed”. So although I breezed through my early years with many accolades, the burden of unreasonable expectations soon proved too heavy to bear. I believed I would one day become a famous cardiologist (I never became one), but as I look back at the essays and poetry I wrote as a child, I now realise that in my heart all I ever wanted to be was a writer. As parents of sanguine children we should avoid jumping to conclusions about their future greatness, and carefully watch for patterns which reveal their true strengths.
The Melancholic Child
The melancholic child can be very quiet, and although endowed with amazing creativity and intellectual abilities, feels no compulsions to exhibit it to the world outside. Lois T. Henderson, in her book Another Way Of Seeing, speaks of her slow-to-warm-up melancholic toddler. She writes, “Like many shy and imaginative children, he had built his own little world, and he could enter in at will and leave everything out.” In my observation, many melancholic children are alarmingly slow in achieving milestones as infants. They hate crowds and prefer familiar adults whom they love and trust. They often dislike school, and anything or anyone who tries to pull them out of their world of fantasy. They grow up to be highly gifted adults, but childhood can seem a struggle to them.
The Choleric Child
You can never miss a choleric child in a group. He/she is a born leader, and according to the former professor of paediatrics Dr James Dobson in his book The Strong-Willed Child, holds the highest place in the social hierarchy that exists among children. The choleric child is task-oriented and is very good with their hands. They are constantly challenging their weary mother to tasks around the house. They have a very sharp tongue and can offend peers and adults alike.
The Phlegmatic Child
A phlegmatic child is eager to please, and rather easy to deal with. If you have ever wondered why your child cannot stay quiet during a long drive, while your friend’s child of the same age is blissfully happy through the journey, it could be that your friend’s child is phlegmatic. Though phlegmatic children sail through childhood uneventfully, they possess a stubbornness within that often can frustrate parents. They usually find it very difficult to part with their toys. In spite of hidden talents, phlegmatic children need help to overcome a lack of motivation and under-confidence, and need encouragement to exercise their gifts.
It would be useful for all parents to understand the four primary temperaments, since all children possess a combination of at least two of them. Beverly Lahaye, author of Understanding Your Child’s Temperament, says, “To assist in the proper development and training of children it is very helpful if during each child’s early years the parent learns his temperament characteristics. The heart and centre of the parent-child relationship is knowing and understanding each child.”
To this I would add that it is vital for a parent to first make efforts to understand each child’s own temperament, and then start the process of accepting them as they are, warts and all. This could be an important step towards effective parenting where we will be more aware and accepting of our children’s strengths and weaknesses. We can then be more willing to work intelligently with them until they grow into responsible, stable and confident adults.
Published in the January 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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