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Getting to Know Your Baby: Understanding Nature as You Nurture

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The usual birth announcement presents a baby's birthday, name, size, and weight. You don't usually see the most important thing of all. It's the question we all ask when someone we know has a new friend: What's she like?

The thing is, it takes a while to get to know your baby. Years ago, child development experts believed that children grew up according to a genetically programmed biological blueprint. Later, the thinking was that the adults in a child's life shaped her personality. Today, we understand that the answer to the nature-nurture question is: "It's a lot of both."

Psychologists have mapped out nine behavior categories that are influenced by temperament. You may recognize yourself, your partner, or your friends as being "high," "medium," or "low" types as you read through these categories. Eventually, as you spend time with your baby, you'll get to know her temperament, too.

  What Is Temperament?

  Learning About Your Child's Temperament

What Is Temperament?
The "nature" part of our personality, the part that is determined by our genes, is temperament. Temperament is each person's unique responses to the people, events, and conditions in our world.

    • Temperament doesn't have anything to do with intelligence. Two people who are equally smart may have very different styles of expressing themselves and using their abilities. Everyone — at every age, level of intelligence, level of ability — has a natural tendency to respond to things in varying degrees. This reflects their temperament. In general, these degrees of response are high, medium, and low. None are necessarily good or bad traits in themselves. Life seems to go more smoothly the better the fit between a person's temperament and his or her physical and social environment.

Activity Level

Tortoise or hare: Some people almost always remain calm, while others seem to be in a constant state of flurry.


Glass half empty or half full. Some people are born optimists; others never see the silver lining.


Hot-headed or cool as a cucumber. Some people fly off the handle or are inconsolable during bad times; when life is good, they can't contain their excitement. Others react to things — good or bad —— with less intensity.


Felix or Oscar. People vary in the regularity, predictability, and strictness of their personal habits.


First impressions. Some people are more interested than others in meeting new people, seeing new places, and doing new things.


Surprised or shocked. Change can throw some people for a loop; others take it in stride.

Sensory Threshold

Music or noise. Some people seem to have sharper senses or lower tolerance for hot spices, loud noise, or other sensory stimuli.

Attention Span or Persistence

Stick-to-it-iveness. Some people dig into a new project or idea and see it through; others give up more easily when they encounter obstacles.


Ignoring the man behind the curtain. Some people need peace and quiet to work because they turn their attention to any new distraction. Others can tune out the distraction and continue on with little problem.

Learning About Your Child's Temperament

Understanding your child's temperament is very helpful as you care for her and help her learn her way around the world. If you know your child is easily distracted or bothered by lots of sounds, you may find it easier to calm her down in a quiet room. In a few years, you might help her to find a place to do her homework without lots of distractions.

Knowing that your child's temperament is unique to her will also help you respect her as an individual. This may be somewhat difficult at first, especially if her temperament is different from yours. You may love loud parties and meeting new people, while your child likes smaller, low-key gatherings and takes a while to feel comfortable around new people. Even as you help her feel at ease in social situations, you can let her do things in her own way, at her own pace.

Understanding your child's temperament will make things less frustrating for both of you. She will grow up confident in herself. And she'll have the best chance at happiness and success as she learns to play, work, and live her life in her own way.


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