Baby's personality: Chess and Thomas' baby temperaments

You know Baby has a distinct personality because, well, you’ve been living with her and with the evidence of it every day. It’s also true that the way you raise her has a massive impact on the person she is growing up to be, though. These two factors play into things as important as how Baby will do in school to as simple as how long it will take her to ride a bike, or as mysterious as what her favorite picture book is going to be this time next year. The question of which is more important, and in what ways, is called the nature versus nurture debate, and it’s one of those questions that doesn’t seem to have definitive answers, though many important thinkers and scientists have worked to find them.

The New York Longitudinal Study

Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess’ work studying the basic temperaments of infants, and following them through their lives into early adulthood is significant because it proposed that it wasn’t nature (a child’s inborn personality) or nurture (the child’s parent’s parenting style and influence) that determined the happiness and success of that child, but the way those two factors fit together. They concluded that children whose environments and influences were well-suited to their personalities do better than the children whose environments and personalities fit together less well.

The study they used to find these results began in 1956 and followed a group of over 100 then-infants until 1977. They evaluated each child for nine traits which they traced over time, and looked at along with information gathered in detailed interviews about the children’s personalities and behavior, as well as the parents’ attitudes and expectations for their children. Then, they used these pieces of information to sort children into three different personality types. The traits, including babies’ levels of physical activity, whether they were social or shy with strangers, and whether they prefered to follow schedules or take days as they came, among others, were thought to be the component parts that went into forming the different personality types they’d identified.

The traits

Based on their research, Doctors Chess and Thomas described nine general traits found in children:

  • Activity: Her level of motor activity and the amount of time she spends being active.
  • Rhythmicity/regularity: How regular her patterns of eating, sleeping and other bodily functions are.
  • Response to new things: How she will probably respond to new experiences, whether she is likely to accept them or withdraw from them.
  • Adaptability: How she responds to changes in her environment.
  • Sensitivity: Her threshold for stimuli.
  • Response: The energy levels and intensity of her responses.
  • Disposition: Whether she generally seems happy or unhappy, friendly or unfriendly.
  • Distractability: How easily she can be distracted from what she is doing.
  • Attention span: the span of time that she will pay attention attention to one thing when left to her own devices, and her persistence with an activity.

The types

The nine traits let Chess and Thomas identify three distinct groups that about two-thirds of children fit into. The other third are considered to be a mix of the three types.

  • Easy: children categorized as ‘easy’ generally have a positive attitude, are quick to fall into routines, and quick to adapt to new situations.
  • Difficult: children in the ‘difficult’ category cry more often, have a harder time adapting to new situations, and don't regularly follow routines.
  • Slow to warm up: children who are ‘slow to warm up’ adapt slowly and can react negatively, but also show a low intensity in their emotional reactions.

Since Chess and Thomas first established these three categories, different researchers have assigned them different names on the grounds that while the three categories can be useful in pinpointing different personality types in young children, the names seem unnecessarily judgemental, especially when talking about very young children.

What does this mean for Baby?

Technically, nothing. These nine traits are only a subjective way of evaluating any baby’s personality, and other experts believe they’re not the most useful way. More than that though, Chess and Thomas’s conclusion is that, more than anything else, it’s important that the way Baby is raised is suited to her personality, whatever that personality might be. The most important thing to do is to pay attention to her cues so that your nurture can work with her nature in the best possible way.

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