Understanding Your Child’s Personality Traits

By Laurie Winslow Sargent
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Some of your child's behavior and activities are connected with personality traits while others have developed to cope with expectations. Ask yourself these questions to discern which come most naturally to your child.

Even after completing the quiz in the previous article, you may be unsure about your child’s personality type. What if he possesses some traits that appear to be direct opposites? It’s possible that your child is engaged in activities common to all personality types, which makes it a little difficult to discern what comes most naturally. How can you figure out whether behavior and activities are connected with inborn traits or whether your child has developed them to cope with others’ expectations? Ask yourself (or your child) the following questions:

What activities energize my child? Drain my child?

Think back to how your child spent last Saturday. Let’s say that on this single day your daughter picked up her room, met with some fellow 4-H members to plan the group’s next fund-raiser, cheerfully entertained your friend’s toddler while you and your friend visited, and then welcomed four of her closest friends to your house for a slumber party she’d spent weeks planning. Does that mean she’s a melancholy, choleric, phlegmatic and sanguine all rolled into one?

No. Perhaps she picked up her toys only because you had made it clear that she must — and she really wants her allowance. She may be the one planning the fund-raiser because she really likes and wants to please the group’s adviser. It’s possible that she readily agreed to watch your friend’s child because she thinks it will be so cool when she’s old enough to baby-sit — and she had nothing fun planned that afternoon anyway.

That evening, however, you noticed her eyes dancing with excitement as she waited for her friends to arrive. She chattered nonstop as she spread out the supplies for the craft project she’d planned. She hummed as she got out the snacks. When the doorbell rang, she ran to the door to welcome her first guest. After a busy day, she felt energized, excited, contented, more sanguine … more herself.

What is the motivation behind engagement in those activities?

 Priorities are often good indicators of inborn traits. Two kids who are interested in the same activity — say a sports camp — may sign up for very different reasons.

The first child excitedly registers but will stay in the camp only if her friend signs up too. She thinks, After all, what fun can it possibly be without friends? 

The second child eagerly signs up for the same camp. But when asked by his mother if he’d like his best friend to sign up with him, he responds, “Um, no, not this time.” Why not? Because he is determined to learn the sport itself. He’s concerned that his playful, exuberant friend might distract him. He thinks, After all, what fun can it be to go to a sports camp and not learn the sport?  He’d rather arrange another time to play with his friend.

As you can see, the first child’s priority is nurturing relationships. A person who tends to be social, animated, bouncy, enthusiastic, funny, and highly extroverted is likely to be energized by people and truly dislike being alone. Activity choices revolve around who to get together with and when.

The second child’s priority is goal mastery. Some children love to plan and achieve goals. That is what energizes and excites them. It doesn’t mean the second child is not sociable: his priorities are simply different. 

Is it more valuable, perhaps, to define what my child is not, rather than what he is? Will that at least eliminate activities that drain and unmotivate?

 Sometimes it may be more clear what a person is not than what he is. Let’s say you inwardly cringe each time you notice your ten-year-old son’s messy, bulging backpack. It’s jammed with dog-eared textbooks, old homework assignments, outdated notices from school — even leftovers from last week’s lunches. You constantly urge him to clean it out — and on occasion even do so yourself — only to feel your irritation rise a few days later when you stumble over the stuffed backpack that he’s left lying in your hallway again. Clearly neatness and organization are not his strengths.

Yet this same son may excel at playing the trumpet. He carefully guards his prized instrument and, in addition to practicing for band class, enjoys improvising new melodies. Because of the way your son motivates and entertains his fellow band members, the band teacher considers him a prize student and natural leader.

Let’s say that same band teacher is the student council adviser and encourages your son to run for a spot in student government. While it might not make much sense for your son to serve as secretary or treasurer — who knows what would happen to the notes or money entrusted to him? — his leadership skills might make him an excellent president or class representative. Discerning your child’s weaknesses from his strengths can assist you as you help him choose activities. That doesn’t mean you won’t encourage him to edge out of his comfort zone once in a while, but you’ll know better when to let things be.

Even with a good idea of what energizes and motivates my child, could I jump to conclusions that might not be accurate?

 Sometimes our own desires for our children cause us to overfocus on strengths that we think will prove most useful to a child. What you see as the main course in your child (his major strengths or gifts) may indeed only be side dishes (minor strengths).

One classic example, replayed endlessly in movies, is that of the formerly athletic dad who hopes to live out his own failed dreams through his child. He’s optimistic about and perhaps exaggerates potential in his child’s couple of home runs, only to realize later with chagrin that his son prefers the arts to sports.

An obvious way to avoid this pitfall is to listen to your child as he expresses what does and does not interest him. That doesn’t mean you never push a child to try something he’s not immediately interested in — a reluctant soccer player may indeed end up loving it (though he won’t necessarily want to devote excess time to it.)

Designed with differences

It’s a good thing we are designed with such differences! The human population needs variety. Romans 12:4-5 describes the need for different gifts within members of the church:

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

If you have ever found yourself embarrassed or let-down by your child’s personality, remember that God designed your child with a particular temperament for a reason! You, as the parent, have the incredible privilege of seeing how those traits are used to strengthen your family, as well as your child’s school, friendships, and, eventually, your child’s life work.

Now that you’ve had an opportunity to consider your child’s leanings, next up is an examination of how traits can cause friction between children and their parents. As we focus on when “differences” means “difficulties,” I hope you will continue to remember all that is admirable and worthy of praise in your child.

Taken from Delight in Your Child’s Design published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2005 by Laurie Winslow Sargent. All rights reserved.

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