Child Temperament: How We Start to Become Ourselves | David C Rettew | TEDxBurlingtonED

Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Denise RQ What I’d like to talk about today
is making kids. Now it’s not what you might
be thinking about, this is a family show. Rather what I would like to talk about
are those amazing, adorable, and sometimes incredible irritating traits that we call ‘temperament’
or ‘personality’. Some kids are very quickly brought
to feel anxious or angry, while other kids seem almost unflappable. Some kids love to be surrounded by noise,
and people, and activity, while others prefer some quiet,
maybe even some solitude. Some kids wear their emotions
on their sleeves, while for others you can’t even
figure out how they are feeling sometimes. Where do these temperamental
traits come from? And what, if anything,
should we do about them? From twin studies, we know that about 50-60% of child temperament
comes from our genes. That sounds like a lot. That is a lot. However that still leaves a lot of room
for other influences. Such as the environment. For a long time, there was a debate
that went back and forth about whether it was nature or nurture
that determined behaviour. Now, for the most part,
that debate is over. And I can tell you that the answer
to the question of whether it is nature
or nurture is “Yes.” (Laughter) The story doesn’t end there. When you talk to parents,
many of them marvel about how unbelievably
different their kids are. They’ll say, “I don’t get it. They had
the same mom, they had the same dad, they were raised in the same house,
and I did the same thing, and my kids are nothing alike.” Many times that is true. The question about whether we really do
parent our kids the same way is an interesting one. If you ask most parents, they say, “Yes,
we did pretty much the same thing.” You ask the kids on the other hand,
and they will generally tell you they were parented completely differently. If you actually do observational studies
of parents and kids together, you will often find something in between. But things get even more complicated. There’s a term that geneticists call “evocative gene environment correlations” and that’s a mouthful. What it means when it comes
to child development is that the environment that a child is in
is not some random event that just descends upon them, but is associated or correlated with,
genetically influenced behaviour. That still sounds
a little technical, I know. I would like to argue that this is a very important
and very practical concept. For this Vermont crowd, I thought
of a metaphor that I think could work. That is that kids,
just like big mountains, have the ability to create
their own weather. Think about a child who was
temperamentally happy, and outgoing, and warm. And think about how the universe
tends to respond to those traits. Right? Those are the kids
that make parents look like stars. What about the child
who is a little bit more anxious? Or a little bit more irritable? How does the world often respond to that? Very often it’s with more anxiety,
or more irritability. Then those traits can become larger. Then the snowball starts to grow,
and it starts to move downhill and what starts as small temperamental
differences can then grow into sometimes, full-fledged disorders. What do we do about that? We could blame the parents, right? Psychiatry did that for a while,
and it wasn’t great idea, in my opinion. We could blame the kids, and we could focus all of our energies
on fixing those ‘bad’ behaviors. Or we could use this new knowledge
to see if we could figure out strategies that might turn that snowball
and have it move in a different direction. When I’m talking to parents,
the word I often like to use, especially when talking about parenting more challenging
temperaments is “override”. “Override”. When your little mountain is provoking you
into having that thunderstorm, that response might be entirely normal,
entirely understandable, but as well all know,
often makes things worse. In those moments, what often
can really help, is to recognise that you are in one
of those ‘override’ moments. And then take what’s sometimes
a small but a very deliberate step in a different direction. Now, easier said than done, right? I know. I have been there.
I am still there. With practice, just like anything,
we can get better at it. I am also aware that when I’m saying this,
this may sound counter to what parents have been hearing for years and years. The great Dr. Spock said one of his main
principals was that we should parent in a way that is instinctual,
that feels natural to us. I think actually, that’s very good advice.
I wouldn’t want to contradict that. I would say there are times,
there are many moments, when the best response may be
the most unnatural response for us, if we want to move things
into a different direction. Two very famous temperament researchers,
Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, proposed almost 50 years ago that temperament traits by themselves
are neither good nor bad. Rather, what makes them work,
or in their words, what makes them “adaptive”, is the degree to which that trait,
and that environment, are a good fit. That theory, the “Goodness of Fit” theory
is still taught today. If you think of all of our ways,
all of our efforts to try and improve that fit,
you can boil them down to two things, I think. This is true whether we are talking
about parent guidance, whether we are talking
about school interventions, or whether we are talking about
individual therapy sometimes. You can try to change the child
to fit the environment, and/or you can try to change
the environment to fit the child. Although I have to say,
lately I have been impressed with a third strategy. Which is that sometimes you can back off, you can trust what you have done so far, and you can let that child’s temperament
interact with the world on it’s own terms. I have to confess that that third one
is a challenge for me. As my wife might say,
has caused there to be some “override” moments for myself. (Laughter) I bring that up because I think
when we talk about parenting, especially as a mental
health professional, we have to approach the topic
with a fair amount of humility. I’ve gone to many conferences, I’ve heard
many excellent parenting talks. I’ve left some of them thinking
that as a father, the very best thing
that I could do for for my kids is to figure out how that speaker
could adopt them. (Laughter) That’s just not an option, is it? We are stuck with our kids,
and our kids are stuck with us. Children don’t come
with instruction manuals. I think that’s OK
because unlike a Christmas toy which has to be put together
in a very precise way, when it comes to kids, there is no single
final product that has to be assembled. I like metaphors and when I try to explain
what temperament is to my students, one metaphor that I really like is music. In particular, the key, F major, A minor,
that that piece of music is in. Because that key is with you,
you can hear it, still the possibilities of what that song
will eventually sound like remain endless. Thank you. (Applause)

4 thoughts on “Child Temperament: How We Start to Become Ourselves | David C Rettew | TEDxBurlingtonED

  1. the london oratory high roman catholic boys school stroked my parents ego but it muted me! from a kid who was 1 of the dominate kids in primary school this new place demotivated me i gave up my art & lost my temperament instead accepting life has to be a chore

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