Dear Dr. Debbie,
I have two children who are very different when it comes to sticking with a challenging task versus moving on to something else. I see the same difference when it comes to staying in an argument versus making a compromise or just backing down.
Are these permanent personality traits or are they just feeding off each other while they’re both under the same roof?
One of Each
These extremes are identified as the high and low ends of the Temperament Trait of “Persistence” among the nine traits that were first identified by Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas in the New York Longitudinal Study. The researchers, a married couple, followed 133 newborns starting in 1956 and continuing over twenty-five years with direct observations and parents’ reports. By the late 1970’s the researchers were also able to look at how genetically-based traits were passed on to the next generation.
The work of Chase and Thomas is considered foundational for understanding individual differences that persist from infancy to adulthood, and accepting that some of human behavior has genetic roots. And just as two siblings from the same two parents could be blue-eyed and brown-eyed, genetic expression can also be different in their temperament traits. Ongoing research is focused on teasing out how the environment – social interactions with parents and others – either reinforces a genetic influence or discourages it.
A child who exhibits the high end of the trait of Persistence will stick with a difficult task despite continuing challenges. This is a trait that can cause frustration if, let’s say, you need to interrupt a complicated Lego construction for her to stop for a dinner break. She’s likely to ignore several invitations to stop working because her personality drives her to stick with something until she reaches a satisfactory conclusion.
This personality trait may cause a child to treat parental limits as just one more obstacle to be overcome.
A tactic for guiding a child who is a strong opponent is to be clear and consistent with your expectations. When you recognize you have opposite ideas about what she needs to do, decide how much of a compromise, if any, you are willing to offer, then carry it out without further discussion. The key is to maintain a framework of non-negotiable limits (such as dinner time is always at 5:30 pm) and negotiable limits (such as, inversely, consistently allowing for a 5-minute extension of Lego time if she chooses an after dinner chore rather than setting the table). This child needs a predictable structure for knowing when she can push – and how much – and when she can’t.
This trait will serve her well in pursuits in which she is invested. This could play out in pursuing higher education, starting a business, or being the best parent she can be for a challenging child. She could be a tireless research scientist, a self-directed artist, or a tenacious activist.
For more suggestions on parenting a child with tenacity, read Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D.
Your second child is on the low end of the trait of Persistence with an easy-to-give-up or give-in attitude toward challenges and conflict. This is a strength that will serve her well in knowing when to ask for help and in reducing friction in relationships.
If you sense that this behavior is coupled with self-doubts, you can coach her with messages that could become her Self-Talk. “What’s another way to try that?” or “Where could you find some information to help you do this?” could be used when she faces a hurdle with a school assignment.
If she is in a relationship, such as with her sibling, in which her needs and opinions are often dismissed, be her voice to advocate for her until she starts to believe in their importance herself. “Aster has a different idea about that.” “I don’t think you are considering Aster’s thoughts about that.” And stick around to give her point of view extra weight to even out the disagreement. (This makes it a more equitable tussle between them.)
Her easygoing nature may earn her many friends, contented employers, loyal customers, and happy children of her own who know that she is always approachable and willing to concede. She’d be ideal in a job in human services, or perhaps as an arbitrator between businesses or divorced parents.
Balancing the Extremes
You lucked out with two opposites on the trait of Persistence, so use this awareness to approach each child differently. Siblings also benefit from differences, forcing them to work around them as preparation for interacting with a variety of people in their future lives, and using the contrasts between them to better understand themselves.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 9: Good-for-You Food Fun; January 30: Temperament Differences.
The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.
CCM will celebrate MLK Day with a special program on Monday, January 16 at 10:30 am. “The Skin You Live In” addresses the simple but challenging topic of skin color differences for ages 6 to 12.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.