By DR. PETER A. GORSKI
Special to the Times
Once, years ago, my extended family came to my place for Thanksgiving dinner. What happened makes me certain that it may be a very long time before they return.
Before dessert, I led them through a game I regularly play with students to introduce the behavioral characteristics and potential social consequences of each person's basic temperament.
On a sheet of paper, each guest wrote down the nine categories that portray anyone's personal style, no matter whether you are describing an infant or a retiree:
1. Activity level: How much do you move when talking, eating, listening, even sleeping?
2. Predominant mood: Are you mostly optimistic or pessimistic?
3. Intensity of reactions: Do you dramatize feelings or keep them to yourself?
4. Rhythmicity or regularity: How predictable are your thoughts, actions, eating habits, schedules?
5. Threshold of reactions: How hard is it to get a rise out of you?
6.Approach-withdrawal respons-es: What's your initial reaction to change?
7. Adaptability: Do you grow to feel comfortable in a new situation?
8. Persistence: How long do you concentrate on completing tasks?
9. Distractibility: How easily can you be distracted from the task or person at hand?
I then asked them each to rate themselves, an imagined "ideal'' child and the relative sitting next to them at dinner in each of the nine categories.
My guests realized that how they rated themselves was sometimes strikingly different from what they wish for in a child.
This was a tough realization, because if you like your temperament, chances are you will be happy if your child acts similarly and challenged if she has a different temperament.
And of course, in real life, you don't get to choose your child's temperament.
Anger boiled (and turkey legs nearly became weapons) when the game turned to describing the person seated next to them.
"How could you think that about me? That's not at all who I am!" was one memorable comment.
Yet how others see us can foreclose school admissions, job opportunities and social relationships.
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Some of the nine characteristics often cluster together.
• So-called "Easy" (many prefer the term "Flexible") children tend to be moderately active with mostly positive mood, quick to accept and adapt to changes in their environment, act in predictable ways, have long attention spans and aren't easily distracted.
These children (and adults) get into serious trouble less often than others. But they are more likely to become scapegoats since they so readily accommodate demands and expectations.
• "Difficult" (or "Feisty") children are intense skeptics who are unpredictable, adapt very slowly, if ever, to new conditions and don't willingly conform to rules and regulations.
Yes, they are overrepresented in the principal's office. At the same time, they are more likely to become principals and other kinds of leaders and innovators.
• "Slow-to-Warm-Up" kids are a lot like easy/flexible ones except they are initially averse to change. But when given a chance, they eventually adapt well. Such individuals are too easily written off by impatient peers and teachers and tend to be shy. They offer the reward of loyalty to those who understand and patiently encourage them.
• • •
So here's the important point: Behavioral traits that make us unique individuals from the moment we are born (actually parents begin to ascribe unique qualities to the activity patterns, rhythms and reactions of fetuses) are neither good nor bad by themselves. They help us adapt and thrive more naturally in certain circumstances and relationships or cause discomfort and challenge in others.
It is the fit between our nature and the nature of the expectations our environments place upon us that determines the kind of effort we must apply in order to succeed and feel happy.
Temperaments can differ enormously among members of the same family. Maybe your firstborn was a calm, quiet kid who easily adapted to change. But when No. 2 appears, feisty, fast, and unsure this new school is a good idea, parents have to look beyond their past experiences and expectations.
Show me contented children who become good friends and put consistent effort into reaching their goals and I will show you caring adults who read their cues objectively, hail their strengths, guide them to settings that complement their nature and help them develop effective coping strategies when seas get choppy.
So when you gather your family for dinner, play Scrabble.
Dr. Peter A. Gorski, M.P.A., is a child development expert at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, a pediatrician and a professor of pediatrics, public health and psychiatry at the University of South Florida.