Here is the transcript and summary of David C Rettew’s talk titled “Child Temperament: How We Start to Become Ourselves” at TEDxBurlingtonED conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
David C. Rettew – Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics
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 incredibly irritating traits that we call temperaments 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 others, for others, you can’t even figure out how they’re feeling sometimes.
Where do these temperamental traits come from, and what, if anything, should we do about them? So from twin studies, we know that about 50 to 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.
And for a long time, there was a debate that went back and forth about whether it was nature or nurture that determined behavior. And 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. But 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, you know, I don’t get it. They have the same mom, they have the same dad, they were raised in the same house, and I did the same thing, and my kids are nothing alike. And many times, that’s true.
But the question about whether we really do parent our kids the same way is an interesting one. If you ask most parents, they’ll say, yes, we did pretty much the same thing. You ask the kids, on the other hand, and they will generally tell you that they were parented completely differently. And if you actually do observational studies of parents and kids together, you’ll 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. But 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 behavior.
Now that still sounds a little technical, I know. But I would like to argue that this is a very important and very practical concept. And for this Vermont crowd, I thought of a metaphor that I think could work. And that is that kids, just like big mountains, have the ability to create their own weather.
Think about a child who is temperamentally happy and outgoing and warm. And think about how the universe tends to respond to those traits. Those are the kids that make parents look like stars. But 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.
And then those traits can become larger. And then the snowball starts to grow and it starts to move downhill. And what start as small temperamental differences can then grow into sometimes full-fledged disorders.
So what do we do about that? Well, we could blame the parents, right? And psychiatry did that for a while and it wasn’t a 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 can figure out strategies that might turn that snowball and have it move in a different direction. And when I’m talking to parents, the word I often like to use, especially when talking about parenting more challenging temperaments, is override.
When your little mountain is provoking you into having that thunderstorm, that response might be entirely normal, entirely understandable, but as we all know, often makes things worse. And in those moments, what often can really help is to recognize that you’re 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? And I know, I have been there. I am still there. But with practice, just like anything, we can get better at it. I’m also aware that when I’m saying this, this may sound counter to what parents have been hearing for years and years. So the great Dr. Spock said, one of his main principles was that we should parent in a way that is instinctual, that feels natural to us.
And I think that that’s actually very good advice. I wouldn’t want to contradict that. But I would say that 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.
Now, 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. And that theory, the goodness of fit theory, is still taught today. And if you think of all of our ways, all of our efforts to try to improve that fit, you can boil them down to two things, I think.
And this is true whether we’re talking about parent guidance, whether we’re talking about school interventions, whether we’re 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’ve been impressed with a third strategy, which is that sometimes you can back off, you can trust what you’ve done so far, and you can let that child’s temperament interact with the world on its own terms.