Happiness, Temperament, and Smart Parenting

I once had a parent who sat in my office discussing his daughter, an 8th grader-smart, pretty, and extremely anxious.  She was very concerned that she needed to get into one particular Ivy League college or life would be over- I was concerned about how she would survive high school over the next four years given how myopic and unhappy she was in middle school.

ivy-leagueDad was there,  I had hoped, to help develop a plan for his child to ease the burden she had placed on herself.  It soon became clear who had really placed this burden on the child. Father’s focus was entirely on academic success, although his definition and mine were somewhat different.  I saw a child hurting herself in order to live up to her father’s expectations. She was smart and ambitious, and the irony was that left alone, without paternal pressure, she was just as likely to achieve her ambition.

I knew that the conversation was over when I suggested that the girl could have both success and happiness, and he retorted by asking if happiness really was worth the sacrifice?.

This gentleman was wildly successful in his own right, but it did not translate into a happy life.  For him, success for his child and her siblings was all about a very narrow form of achievement and had little-to-nothing to do with helping the child to grow in a manner that would support her ultimate happiness.

Creating A Balance

I preach a vision of parenting that contains two inherent contradictions.  On the one hand, I suggest that a child’s journey demands that you, as a parent,  play a more active role in helping to shape her future; on the other hand, I believe that such planning requires your willingness and ability to let go of much of your “control” of your child.  Second, I argue that parents too easily accept the influence of strangers and yet, in the end, reality means that you depend on them.

For example, parents need to understand the limits of their influence on their child once school begins.  At that point, the parents are sharing, but also, competing, against her school peers. The task for parents in working with your child to create a healthy balance between support and self-reliance – “smart” parenting that is able to keep a focus on the long-term goal of creating independence and happiness in your child.

The dad in my example above could not create this balance for his child because of his dominant temperament. He could not let go of his own personal emotional needs for the sake of his child, and the girl suffered as a result.


The role temperament plays between parent and child is core to their relationship, and our understanding the complex relationship between the temperaments of each parent and each child in the family is vitally important.  When things go off the rails in their relationship, it is usually because of a clash of temperaments. Add to that the overlay of each parent’s parenting style, which is also critical, and throw in a specific challenge a child may be facing in terms of emotional or educational differences, and how that is being handled, and you often have a cauldron’s mix.

So what is temperament?  We are all born with a certain set of characteristics that make up our individual temperaments.  Research suggests that we can identify three types of temperament in children, a little like Goldilocks and the bears’ porridge: the child who is lukewarm; the easy-to-live-with child, and the child who is hot to the touch.

In general, the research suggests that temperament does not change much, but it is likely to do so over time more in girls than in boys, and that the children of overbearing parents do show a long-term negative impact.  Boys have been found to exhibit more physical aggression than girls; girls show higher levels of “relational aggression”. We all know how this plays out in middle and high school if these behaviors go on unaddressed.

How Confident Parenting Can Help

This is where Confident Parenting can help you in unwrapping the dynamics in your family, and help you build goals and priorities for your future relationships.  In our library of screenings, there is one devoted to the issue of temperament. This will provide you with a much clearer idea of not just your child’s temperament, but those of you and your partner.

Some children will wilt if your temperament is overbearing; some need more gentle intervention; some will simply be difficult, no matter what, you can put structures, rewards, and consequences in place to make life easier with and for them because unless you are going to swap him or her for a gerbil, you need to find a way to successfully integrate all the temperaments in the family.

How is our Ivy league girl doing today?  She is now in her early 30s; she went to her Ivy League and did well, and eventually became a lawyer.  She is married with a child. I met her at an event a while back. The furrowed brow is still there; the inability to express joy appears to be still there and when we spoke, she was unable to take credit for and joy in her success-there were more mountains she needed to climb.  I was left with the feeling that she will never stop until she reaches that summit where she hopes to meet her dad at the top.