Temperament and Child Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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).


One of the more widely reported gender differences in social and emotional development is that boys exhibit more aggression than girls. Although there seems to be little difference in the rate of aggression in infancy, by the time children enter preschool, boys engage in more conflict and in more verbally and physically aggressive acts than girls. According to Underwood (2002), this gender difference holds across socioeconomic groups and across cultures. Males tend to be more vulnerable to family and life stresses than females (Patterson, DeBaryshe, & Ramsey, 2000). It has been postulated, however, that males are reinforced for more aggressive and competitive behavior by family members and peers, which accounts for increasing differences in their social patterns as they develop (Coie & Jacobs, 2000).

Although the rate of overt aggression is much higher among boys, relational aggression is higher among girls. Relational aggression “harms others through manipulation or control of relationships” (Crick, 2000, p. 310). Crick and her colleagues designed teacher and peer rating scales to measure relational aggression in preschool children. Behaviors that reflected relational aggression included not inviting a classmate or peer to a birthday party, not letting a peer play in the group, and not listening to a peer or other person because of feelings of anger toward that individual. These behaviors contrasted with those that reflected overt aggression such as pushing and shoving and throwing objects at others in response to frustration. Crick and her colleagues found that teachers particularly rated preschool-aged girls as more relationally aggressive and less overtly aggressive than preschool-aged boys. They also found that children who showed either type of aggression were rejected by their peers more often than those who were not aggressive.

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