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Child temperament: How much does parenting really matter?

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 4 February 2022

The late Jerome Kagan, PhD, age 84 at the time of this interview in 2013, was one of the key pioneers in the field of developmental psychology. Much of what we know today about child temperament can be traced back to his work. Most of his career was spent at Harvard University (USA), where he studied the intersection of nature-nurture in child temperament. I was thrilled to get a moment with Jerome.

Q: What were the biggest discoveries in your research?

KAGAN: The biggest discoveries were the two temperaments we call "high reactive" and "low reactive." High-reactive temperaments are difficult as infants, but proper rearing can offset the anxiety that is common when they are children. 

The second related discovery was that these two groups have different brain chemistry.

Q: Is it so much the child's temperament that is challenging in a family, or is it rather the temperamental differences between a child and the parent?

KAGAN: The difficulty rests with the fact that they parent is either guilty over her child, frustrated over the inability to alter the child's behavior, or becomes angry at the child. 

Be patient. Don't blame the child. Try to change the child with consistent practices.

Q: How can parents use temperament research in relating to and raising children that they may find challenging?

KAGAN: The key is to initially not blame the child and to avoid blaming oneself for the difficulty, and try to socialize the child with gentle but consistent discipline. If still unsuccessful, seek professional help.