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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Children are not all apples or oranges

Whenever I suggest some idea or tip to a Mom for helping her child, the mother comes back to me and says "It does not work for my child." I often have to tell Mom that it will never work as-is, you have to adapt it to your child's situation. You cannot 'adopt' a tip as it is.

Every child is unique. There is a big confusion about 'heritable' traits and 'development' traits. Nature versus Nurture has been an ongoing debate for centuries. When we think of heritable traits, we think of them as 'non-changeable'. And when we think of 'development' traits, we think of them as 'changeable'. Nothing is farther from truth. Our traits are formed both by 'nature' as well as 'nurture'. 

Although researchers find it very difficult to agree with the list of traits that a child comes with, now it is agreed that child's temperament is a trait that the child comes with. It makes him unique. The following list defines eight temperament traits**. Each trait exists in a child along a continuum from high to low. It is not right or wrong.

  1. Activity level—amount of physical movement that the child has. We call overactive child as intelligent, and underactive child as 'dull'. But when a child has this trait  on a lower side, it is difficult to distinguish if 'dullness' of the child has been caused by lower activity level of the child or vice versa. 
  2. Biological rhythms—regularity in eating, sleeping, and elimination. Some children have variable rhythm, some have fixed. When a child does not get too much disturbed in your travel, you can assume that your child demands low level of regularity. But if the child has high level of demand on this, then the parents have to take extra care to 'preserve' the biological rhythm
  3. Approach/withdrawal—comfort in new situation. This trait determines the nature of the extroversion of the child. Because the child withdraws from a stranger due to this temperament, less people take the child ( reactive covariance) making the child even more withdrawn. ( Active covariance)
  4. Mood—whether a child is mostly positive or negative. Some mothers are lucky to have a child with negative mood, thereby forcing them mature fast. They have to learn to  'stop reacting' to their moods, if they want their child to become less glummer. 
  5. Intensity of reaction—how much a child reacts to situations or stimuli. If a child's reaction to stimuli is very high, he or she may get addicted to TV quite easily. 
  6. Adaptability—ability to manage changes in routine or recover from being upset. If a child takes longer time to recover from the upset  - like not getting his food immediately, or not getting his toy - then the parents have to help the child to manage his or her upset. This can become a nice lesson in 'self regulation'. 
  7. Distractibility—how easily a child’s attention is distracted. As you would realise, this trait can be utilised smartly. When the child is 'demanding' a certain action  - like starting a TV or going out -you will find that it is OK to have a highly distractable child, because he can be easily distracted from his original goal than a less distracted child. 
  8. Persistence—how long a child will stay with a difficult activity before giving up. Many parents surprisingly do not nurture this trait even when the child has high level of this trait. No sooner is the child engaged in playing with, say a flower , the parents distract him by showing a 'ball'. 
In short, you will realise that every trait forces the parents to 'respond' to the child in a different way. If the parents just 'react' ( instead of responding) then they cause more harm to the child's development. 

For instance, if a child has low comfort with the strangers, the parents often misunderstand this as 'low confidence' and try to force the child to accept the stranger quickly. This leads to the trigger of vicious circle making the child even more 'withdrawn'. Parents have to learn to introduce a withdrawn child to a stranger in stages : first in the presence of the parents, then using some object like mobile to distract the child, and waiting for the child to show his acceptance before asking the stranger to shake her hand. If this is not done, by the age of 3-4, after repeated cycles, the child becomes 'withdrawn'. Has this child acquired the characteristics of withdrawn child, or did the innate trait of 'withdrawal' only got heightened? 

Imagine that the child is less 'distractable'. If the parents introduce this child to different 'food items' instead of making him eat his food, the child refuses to eat his normal food. Now the parents have to spend extra efforts and energy in making the child eat his normal food. Or if the child is less adaptable, the parents has to give him time to recover from his upset. If the parents force him to the next set of action, imagining that the child would have forgotten, the parent's action unknowingly leads to many unintended consequences.

As researchers like to say, Parents can make a lot of difference to the development of their children not by transferring their genes, but by enabling or disabling the expression of their genes. 

**Adapted from A.Thomas and S. Chess, Temperament and Development (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1977).

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