March 2012 Print

How to Work with Your Child

Michael J. Rayes

You discipline two of your children. One stands right in front of you with a firm look on his face, taking your stern lecture and your raised tone of voice. The other child stands at your side and cannot even look at you. Tears begin coming down his face. Why do kids react so differently to the same thing?

You may have already read about the four temperaments. But what does that have to do with you as a parent today? How can you apply knowledge of the temperaments to your own parenting style? You may already have a theoretical idea that you shouldn’t respond to your children in exactly the same way, but modify your approach to suit their own unique needs. In the real world, how can you best respond effectively and charitably to each of your children?

Temperament and Personality

What exactly is temperament, anyway? Temperament is what someone is inclined to do because of how they are wired from birth. Personality combines temperament with biological gender, nurturing (including birth order and family environment), internal willpower, the learned habits of a person, and other external factors and life events.

So, temperament is how you were born, but personality is what you became. Temperament is how you react to something. Have you noticed that some people are naturally high-strung, and others are naturally calm? That’s temperament.

Your whole personality as an adult is a combination of temperament with the other factors mentioned above. For example, two sanguine 25-year-olds will have much different personalities if one was raised in Beverly Hills and the other in Afghanistan. Self-will, too, has a lot to do with an adult’s personality. Two choleric 50-year-olds who lived their lives in the same city, with the same culture and family background, will have different personalities if one spent the last 30 years deliberately trying to curb his passions and making time for personal prayer.

Why consider the temperaments, then? Are we labeling people? Not exactly. Notice that when discussing the full personality of a person, we only considered adults. Children do not have fully formed personalities, and thus we look at their temperaments. They are much more likely, in their “raw” temperamental state, to respond to triggering events in a predictable manner. Parents can use an understanding of their child’s temperament to make their job as parents easier.

How to Determine the Temperament of Your Child

Review this chart and see which attributes, reaction, and orientation your child is most likely to exhibit. Also remember, probably no one is a pure temperament. We are blends of dominant and secondary temperaments (e.g., sanguine-choleric).

Practical Approach to Family Life

In a Catholic-sized family, you can pair older and younger kids to babysit instead of simply relying on the oldest child to babysit the whole troop. For example, pair an older sloucher-phlegmatic with a preschool choleric-busybody; an older worrier-melancholic with a young giggling-crying sanguine. Children tend to fight less with their opposite dominant temperament.

When it comes time for homework, sanguine-giggler children oftentimes like to have background music playing while they get started on their work. Many melancholic-worrier children can’t have music because it distracts their focus. You may need to separate the kids so they don’t distract each other.

Let’s use math as an example of how to initiate their homework or a homeschool assignment. Using the same page of math problems, a parent can approach the child differently based on the temperament of the child:

If the child is a choleric-busybody, the parent says: “Here’s your math page. It’s really important because it helps us learn how to think and solve problems. I know you can do this.”

Sanguine-giggler: “Here’s your math page. Just do half of them for now, okay? Let’s do the first one together.”

Melancholic-worrier: “Sit right here next to me and we’ll begin your math page together.”

Phlegmatic-sloucher: “It’s time to do your math. Go ahead and do your math now. Let’s just get started right now.”

Notice the key points: For the choleric, the parent emphasizes that math is important and then challenges the child; for the sanguine, the parent shares the burden with the child so he isn’t alone, and also makes it less work (for now); the melancholic child gets support by sitting next to the parent; and the phlegmatic hears “now” more than once.

How to Teach Temperamental Children

Bossy, busybody choleric children do not have much patience for long, boring lectures. These children may become playground bullies if they are not given enough duties and hands-on activities.

Fun, giggling (and instantly crying) sanguine children have focus issues. You cannot simply give them a bunch of lessons or homework and then walk away, as you do for a choleric. They need to be monitored. Often. Give them deadlines, timers, rewards. They like to see the big picture, but divide their assignments so they can focus better that way. If it’s fun, they’ll do it with gusto; if it’s not fun, it’s like moving heaven and earth.

Worrier-melancholic kids love to have their own space labeled. They crave order, structure, and routine. They are often the recipients of playground bullying. They can do all their homework once they feel they have the support they need, and they are now comfortable with their work. If they are not used to an assignment, their shyness prevents them from doing it. When a melancholic child needs help with schoolwork, he will come directly to you. When a sanguine child needs help, he will quietly sneak away to do something fun.

Calm, slouching phlegmatic children have quiet, ironclad traits of stubbornness. They are not typically high achievers and may be content just watching the other kids play. They need to be told, respectfully, that it’s time for the next activity or assignment. These kids crave peace and harmony. If their lack of performance is presented as a problem, they will be motivated to fix it so they can get back to their normal, peaceful routine. They also crave respect and are discouraged by nagging.

How you compliment and praise your children should reflect the child’s own temperament. To the busybody choleric child, say, “I appreciate all the work you did!” To the calm phlegmatic, “I appreciate you!” A giggling sanguine child needs to hear “You look nice!” or “That sounds good!” But a worrying melancholic needs to hear, “Good job!” or “I like how you did that!”

In other words, busybody-cholerics need recognition for what they do. Slow, slouching phlegmatics need recognition for simply being themselves. Giggling, unfocused sanguines need recognition for how they look or act. Worrying, orderly melancholic kids need praise for how they did something. Remember, your praise for any child should be specific or it may not appear to be genuine.

What Every Child Needs

The four temperamental types are different, but all children are created in the image and likeness of our loving God, and everyone has free-will to choose his own behavior. In light of this, is there something which all types of children need? What universal traits will help all children grow and get to Heaven?

The Answer Is Love and Stability

When parents love each other, love their children, and provide a stable emotional framework of family life, children thus have a foundational environment to thrive and become well-adjusted, devout Catholic adults. This is exactly what God directs you to do in the sacrament of holy matrimony. The purpose of family life is to give souls back to God. Remember this when you feel exasperated in the middle of kid drama, dirty dishes, and homework. When you provide love, stability, and measured responses based on their temperaments, you are doing the work of God.