Qualities of Temperament (page 3)
The ways in which the family responds to an infant are influenced by that baby's temperament. Temperament also affects the infant's initial response to her or his environment. Temperament is a broad term that includes an individual's predisposition to certain moods and reaction styles. Babies appear to be born with these constitutionally based biases. Doctors and nurses as well as parents and researchers are able to see signs of temperament within a few hours after birth.
Temperament is the foundation of personality development and includes such qualities as emotional responses, activity level, sociability, and impulsiveness. Thomas and Chess (1986) believe temperament is established by the first two or three months of life. Researchers continue to study the genetic influences as well as the effect of the environment on temperament. Does the child's environment affect modest changes in his or her temperament over time?
Is an infant's temperament relatively stable throughout life, supporting the theory of genetic determination? In studying these and other questions, Thomas and Chess (1986) have identified nine qualities of temperament that are present in children at birth. The following traits were researched for ten years beginning in 1968:
- Activity level
- Approach or withdrawal (when confronted by new experiences)
- Adaptability to change
- Quality of mood or irritability
- Attention span or persistence
- Rhythmicity (regularity)
- Sensitivity to stimuli (how much noise to wake the baby)
- Intensity of reaction
Because these characteristics appeared in clusters, Thomas and Chess (1986) classified temperament in babies according to three styles: "easy," "slow to warm up," and "difficult." However, 35 percent of the infants did not fit into any category.
- Easy to warm up babies—40 percent. Positive disposition, regular body functions, adaptable, curious, moderate to low intensity of emotions.
- Slow-to-warm-up babies—15 percent. Inactive or calm reactions to the environment, withdraw from new situations.
- Difficult babies—10 percent. More negative moods; babies withdraw or are slow to adapt to new situations.
In studying various characteristics in children from infancy through age seven, Thomas and Chess found relatively little change in their basic styles. For example, a large number of babies classified as "difficult" were found to have more serious emotional problems at age seven than babies in the other two groups. However, other research showed both stability and changes in various temperament dimensions throughout childhood. Many studies found that children who showed high or low extremes in attention span, irritability sociability, or shyness were likely to score much the same throughout childhood and sometimes into adulthood (Caspi, Henry, McGee, Moffit, and Silva, 1995; Kochanska and Radke-Yarrow, 1992). Other studies found that some characteristics such as shyness or sociability can change over time and only appear to be stable if a child is extremely shy or sociable (Kerr, Lambert, Statin, Klachenberg-Larsson, 1994; Sanson, Pedlow, Cann, Prior, and Oberklaid, 1996).
A longitudinal study by Guerin and Gottfried (1994) on developmental stability and change in temperament from ages 2 to 12 showed that most changes occurred in the first five years, with no significant changes during the years from ages 5 to 12. These changes were found for five of the nine dimensions: rhythmicity, mood, persistence, threshold, and intensity. Temperamental difficulties during infancy foreshadowed adverse temperamental qualities such as slow adaptability and negative mood as well as behavioral problems during childhood (Guerin, Gottfried, and Thomas, 1997). Boys and girls were found to be more alike in temperament than different (Guerin and Gottfried, 1994).
An important factor in determinating children's behavior involves the principle of bidirectionality. The reactions of the baby affect the responses of the adult, which in turn influence the baby's next response.Thus, smiling, cuddling, content babies will encourage parents and other people to smile with them and enjoy their company. Fretful babies who cry easily may be upsetting to parents and caregivers, resulting in interactions producing frustrations and less joy. A parent or parents without a support system are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of living with a difficult or unresponsive baby. However, parents who respond to a difficult or fretful baby with warmth and consistency are more likely to have a child who later avoids problems that other irritable babies have (Belsky, Fish, and Isabella, 1991; Crockenberg, 1986). It is tempting to assume certain patterns of behavior are a product of a child's temperament, but the principle of bidirectionality needs to be considered.
As early as the first weeks of life, the infant has an influence on the caregiver. One mother, who welcomed motherhood and wanted to do her best, felt rejected by her infant, who alternated between uncontrollable intense screaming and crying and heavy sleep. The mother was so depressed by the rejection that she sought therapy (Thomas and Chess, 1986). Another mother whose daughters were in their thirties describes it this way:
The oldest daughter would stiffen and rear back her head when I attempted to cuddle her, while the younger one would snuggle contentedly in my arms. I still feel the sense of rejection the oldest daughter caused me.
When parents consider the child's temperament and respond appropriately to their child's behavior, they help to modify behavior that some parents might assume to be "natural" for the child.
The family's culture and/or the dominant culture of the community also influence the way in which the family reacts to a child's behavior. Do certain values or beliefs in the culture complement the child's temperament? For example, an irritable infant in the East African Masai culture in Kenya may thrive better there than if raised in the United States. The Masai mother breastfeeds a baby who is crying, giving this baby additional nutrition and comfort (M. V. deVries, 1984). The Masai mother is not told to let the baby cry.
Effective caregiving is seen in terms of cultural values. In Western nations, adults consider children who are very shy to have a social problem. In contrast, Chinese adults consider their shy children to be advanced in social maturity and understanding. In a study comparing Canadian and Chinese children, Canadian mothers reported that they punished and protected their shy children and showed less acceptance and encouragement of their achievements. In contrast, Chinese mothers of shy children responded with less protection and rejection and greater acceptance and encouragement (Chen, Hastings, Rubin, Chen, Cen, and Stewart, 1998).
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