Temperament and Child Development
Theorists and researchers who emphasize the role of nature in development believe that every child is born with a set of personality characteristics that Thomas and Chess (1977) call temperament. These characteristics play an important role in shaping the responses of a child’s caregivers and, ultimately, in molding the child’s future personality. There has been enormous interest in temperament since researchers first studied it in the 1920s. Since those early investigations, the concept of temperament has evolved. For example, Thomas and Chess originally identified nine dimensions of temperament. Because their dimensions were not independent, other researchers combined them into three dimensions. Sanson, Hemphill, and Smart (2002) call the first dimension negative emotionality, and include irritability, negative mood, inflexibility, and high intensity as negative reactions. Self-regulation is the second dimension, and includes persistence, nondistractibility, and emotional control. The third dimension, approach/withdrawal, inhibition, or sociability includes both approaching new situations and people or withdrawing from them.
These attributes of temperament combine to characterize differences between children and how they respond to their caregivers (Thomas & Chess, 1977). The easy child, for example, is very adaptable, playful, and responsive to adults. This type of child is likely to receive a great deal of adult attention during the early years because interactions are so pleasant and reinforcing. The difficult child, on the other hand, provides little positive feedback to adults. He is fussy, difficult to soothe, and has problems sleeping and eating. Finally, the temperament of the slow-to-warm-up child is characterized by slow adaptability. Adults who sustain contact with this type of child are usually rewarded by the positive behaviors found in the easy child, but it takes considerably longer to elicit them.
Although there is some evidence that temperament is stable over time, there are some factors that affect some types of temperament. Martin and Fox (2006) suggest that these factors include the sex of the child (e.g., inhibited girls are more likely to change than inhibited boys), children’s participation in out-of-the-home care (e.g., children who receive outside child care become less inhibited over time), and parental characteristics (e.g., parents who are overcontrolling have children who remain inhibited over time). Limited research has examined the role of cultural differences on temperament; this research largely has been conducted with older children (Sanson et al., 2002).
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