Differences from Birth (page 3)
As a clinical psychologist I have often been asked questions about the nature-nurture issue, that is, "Are our personalities determined primarily by inborn, biological factors or by environmental factors?" Most people now recognize that both biology and environment are very influential forces in shaping who we are, how we think, and how we behave. However, when we interact with others we sometimes are guided by assumptions that fail to consider how each of these forces has an impact. For example, I can think of many instances in which parents and teachers have said to me that they know children are different from each other at birth, but a few minutes after making this statement they noted, "I treat each of my children (or students) the same. That's the fairest thing to do." Yet, if children are different from infancy, then is it fair to have the same expectations for all of them? On the other side of the coin, at least one popular book in the past year has minimized the impact that parents have on their children's development, placing the dominant influence first on innate factors and later on peers.
One of the main questions I am asked pertaining to nature vs. nurture is the ways in which children are different from birth. The question has been posed so frequently that I have included it as a theme in all of my parenting workshops. There are various inborn qualities that distinguish infants from each other. I have selected one quality to discuss in this and my next column, namely, temperament, since I believe that many stresses in parent-child or teacher-child or even husband-wife relationships are based on expectations that we have for the other person that given her or his unique temperament she or he is not able to meet. In article I will describe some of the important research about temperament.
It may be helpful if I provided a short history of the changes that have occurred in my knowledge and perspective about innate differences in children. When I first entered the field of clinical psychology in the mid-1960’s, I was taught, and as a young psychologist believed, that all infants were the same at birth. This belief unintentionally created within me a rather negative, accusatory view of the role of parents in causing problems in their children. I am embarrassed to admit that in the early stages of my career when I consulted with parents who had a child with emotional or behavioral problems my initial thought was, "You really screwed up. Since all children are the same at birth and you have a child with problems, you must have done something wrong to cause these problems." Fortunately, I was wise enough not to utter this sentiment although most likely it was conveyed nonverbally to many of the parents with whom I was doing parenting counseling ("parent blaming" might be a better description of what I was doing). Actually, I was not alone in my accusations towards parents. It was a time when mental health professionals readily blamed parents for almost every emotional problem their child manifested including schizophrenia, autism, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Thankfully, this phase of my career that I call "parental blame" was soon to be challenged, first by the birth of my own children and then by research. I remember thinking when my oldest son, Richard, was born, "There’s more to parenting than meets the eye." When my younger son Douglas came along I thought, "Wow, even two children from the same gene pool can be really different from birth.
At the same time my children were born, child development researchers and clinicians were beginning to take an increasingly closer look at differences in children in terms of such qualities as temperament, learning styles, and coping styles. Two of the pioneers in the field of examining differences in infant temperament are psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas. They and their colleagues studied many infants and identified nine characteristics of temperament. They strongly advocated that parents understand and appreciate these characteristics so that they could interact with their children in a more effective and satisfactory manner. For example, Chess and Thomas reported that some infants are born more active, others less active, some seem to have a happy mood while others appear more negative, some adjust quickly to new situations while others cry at the smallest modification in routine, some are hypersensitive to touch or sound while others enjoy sensory stimulation, and some quickly develop regular eating and sleeping patterns while others never seem to do so.
Given these variations in the temperamental patterns of children, Chess and Thomas provided labels for three kinds of children: the "easy" child, the "slow-to-warm-up" child, and the "difficult" child. They noted that these are not precise labels since many children do not fit neatly into any of these three groups while other youngsters appear to possess attributes from at least two of the groups. Still others may appear one way in some situations and with some people but another way in other situations. Although further refinements of their labels may not be possible in light of how complex each person is, the work of Chess and Thomas has major implications for how we parent and teach children and even as adults how we relate with each other.
While there is always a danger of pigeonholing children into categories, I believe it is helpful to describe the three kinds of children mentioned by Chess and Thomas and to reflect upon how each requires a different kind of parenting or teaching approach. Also, as I mentioned earlier, if we fail to appreciate these differences we may hold expectations for our children that will be difficult for them to achieve. We should also understand that these temperamental differences are not cast in stone and that life experiences will significantly impact on the kind of person we are. Certainly biology is not destiny.
My description of "easy" children is that from the moment they are born they seem to say to their parents, "Don’t worry, we’re going to help you feel like the best parents in the world." They are easily satisfied, easy to raise, develop regular sleeping and eating patterns, love to be held, and always seem to smile. Although I am exaggerating to make a point, I often say in my workshops, "You can spend one minute of an hour with easy children and they feel they are getting all of the love in the world." Easy children are the ones you enjoy bringing to your own parents as if to say, "See, this is how you raise children."
When they begin school, teachers respond to easy children in the same positive way as parents. As temperamentally easy children develop parents enjoy taking them places, assured that they will behave appropriately. Parents of easy children eagerly anticipate school conferences (and teachers look forward to holding such conferences) since they know that positive comments will pervade the meeting. These parents also look forward to sporting events in which their children are participating because they know that their children will make them proud. In essence, easy children help us to feel like excellent parents and teachers. Consequently, they receive positive feedback from us and a very positive interactive cycle is set in motion.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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