Avoiding labels

Every child is a unique mix of the traits, but there are three clusters of traits that the New York study (see Understanding your child’s temperament) showed were more common than others. Although it is important not to straight jacket your young child with a rigid label, it can be useful to understand how her character may have an impact on the way you respond to her. These traits give some insight into the kind of approach that would work when setting guidelines and nurturing your child.

The way parents respond to spirited behavior in children include: guilt and anxiety that they are doing something wrong since nothing seems to please their child; anger and blaming, as if the child is behaving this way on purpose; or a sense of rejection because of being unable to soothe or comfort her. Although understandable responses, it is important to remember that children under the age of four are not yet capable of anticipating consequences. Instead, you need to prepare and protect your child from upset by being aware of the sensory challenges (such as the discomfort of a wet diaper, or a light that is too bright) and environmental changes (such as a change in daily routine) that are having an impact, and be ready to respond. A consistent routine will help your child learn about predictability and will offer reassurance.

Easy baby

“Easy” babies will tend to adjust quickly to change, be very regular in their eating and sleeping habits and bowel movements, and it may be easy to predict their response to a situation. Since they have a high level of discomfort and frustration tolerance, these babies are generally contented and positive, and easily soothed when distressed. Parenting such a contented baby can sometimes feel too easy. A parent may feel almost unnecessary in the relationship. It is important to remember this phase will pass and your baby still needs stimulation, attention, and her unique relationship with you.

Shy baby

“Shy” babies, described in the original New York study as “slow to warm” have a cluster of traits that lead them to reject or withdraw instinctively from new people and situations. They tend to be cautious and watchful rather than approach and get involved physically. These babies do not always show their discomfort, so it can be difficult to know when they are in need of attention, reassurance, or a nappy change. They can cope with irregular routine and are not demanding.

Some parents may worry about their child’s “shyness,” but children may pick up on this anxiety which can itself lead to other traits, such as clinginess. Parents need to give their child gradual but frequent opportunities to experience new situations and people. If children are given plenty of time to warm up to new situations, and are under no pressure, they will adapt and learn coping skills in time. If your child appears anxious or stressed, or overstimulated by something new, withdraw from the situation, reassure her, and try again. If you have a tendency to withdraw from new people and prefer to avoid new experiences yourself, your reactions will reinforce the characteristics in your child. However, you have several years to overcome your own fears—so you might start to gradually challenge yourself, too. Meeting other parents is often a great place to start.

Shy times

Even an outgoing child will withdraw at times. Try not to compare your child to siblings or criticize or label her because of how she responds to a situation.

“Difficult” baby

Very physically active, restless, and easily distracted babies are often wrongly labeled “difficult” or spirited because they tend to demand constant and immediate attention and are not easily settled. These are the children who tend to respond vigorously and vocally to discomfort or change and are intensely emotional. Hard to soothe and get to sleep, they do not settle into an easy routine. New situations and people are a challenge and they may react strongly to sensory and environmental changes.

If treated in a caring and responsive way, most of the so-called “difficult” behavior, such as fretting and being overly reactive to change, will calm by the age of one and can be overcome by the age of four. These toddlers often grow into active, energetic, and emotionally expressive children. The challenge is to stay positive, loving, and consistent toward your child in spite of the challenges. If a negative relationship builds up, there is a danger that behavioral challenges will develop in later life.


Another 40 percent of children do not fit clearly into any of these three categories, but are a unique mix of the nine characteristics described under the section Understanding your child’s temperament.

Is birth order important?

The evidence is mixed on the effects of birth order on a child, and tends to depend on the approach of the parents. Older children who have spent lots of time in the company of adults, may find being with adults easier than being with children; whereas younger children, used to having an older sibling as a role model, may develop social skills more quickly and relate to their peers more naturally. First-born children may be encouraged to develop leadership skills and to take responsibility from a younger age than a sibling, who has to compete for resources and attention. In contrast, younger children may develop faster and be more confident because the parents are more experienced and relaxed. A single child will adjust in a similar way provided she is given opportunities to socialize and is not treated from an early age as a “little adult.”

Real life

My little girl is three now, and I’ve found that parenthood has made me want to change things about myself. When you have a child, you see all of your own traits lived out in front of you, such as being shy and hating crowds. It makes you want to try and change how you act, so that you give out a more positive message. I so much want my daughter to have higher self-esteem than I did, but she is already quite timid. I try to encourage her and give her “coping techniques” in situations she’s not enthusiastic about, such as going to a party. I have promised myself that I will never tell her that she will “enjoy it once she’s there” since I hated being told that when I was little. It is a taboo to say how hard it is to be a parent sometimes, but I think the difficulties should be talked about so that whatever parents go through they know it is normal and they are not alone.

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