Why is one child so difficult to motivate? Why is another so easily distracted? Why does one plod through his work, while another races? Where do these differences come from? How can we best help each of these children to achieve success in school and in life?
In the fourth century B.C., Hippocrates, “the father of medicine,” saw four distinct patterns of behavior in his patients. He believed these patterns were based on biology. He called them temperaments. Five hundred years later, Galen taught that these differences were based on bodily fluids, or humors. He gave the temperaments the names choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic. We no longer tie temperament to bodily fluids, but Catholic authorities throughout the centuries have noticed the same patterns these ancient Greeks did.
Cholerics react quickly to stimuli and their impressions last. Sanguines react quickly, but just as quickly move on. Phlegmatics react slowly and mildly, without noticeably lasting impressions. Melancholics react slowly, but their impressions last.
Fr. Conrad Hock wrote:
One of the most reliable means of learning to know oneself is the study of the temperaments. For if a man is fully cognizant of his temperament, he can learn easily to direct and control himself. If he is able to discern the temperament of others, he can better understand and help them. (The Four Temperaments and the Spiritual Life, 1:1)
We all want to “better understand and help” our children. How can knowledge of our children’s temperaments help us?
One way it can help us is by uncovering our children’s motivations. Children of each temperament are motivated in different ways. What are these motivations?
Cholerics desire control over themselves and their circumstances. From a young age they want to make their own decisions. They resist being told what to do. They argue and disobey. Knowing that a child is choleric, we can involve him in decisions about his education from an early age. As a preschooler, he can choose library books. Later he can decide whether to study mammals or reptiles first, for example, and which species to start with. As he matures, he can choose writing and art projects, science experiments, and extracurricular activities.
Sanguines are motivated by fun and camaraderie. When we model good behavior, the sanguine child will copy us. He will be enthusiastic about group activities. Games and puzzles will keep his attention better than worksheets. When he gets distracted, a hug or a pat on the head can fill his cup enough that he will return to work. Leaving the sanguine alone to do his work is usually a mistake. But as he gets older he will have to learn to stick to longer assignments, even when they seem dull. We can motivate him by alternating desk work with breaks and socializing.
The phlegmatic resists new ideas. Peace is his prime motivator. He doesn’t want to rock the boat–his or anyone else’s. He usually doesn’t mind traditional text book and worksheet learning. He needs a quiet environment to work in. We cannot force the phlegmatic to move. We must encourage him with praise and reminders of past successes. He needs to practice reacting quickly to important commands so that he is ready for emergencies. If learning is a positive experience for him, not one where he feels like he’s always being pushed, he’ll be more likely to work hard.
The melancholic’s greatest desire is for perfection. Fear of failure can prevent him from getting started. Convincing him that an assignment or project is important is one place to start. If he believes that he needs to do something, he will try in spite of his fears. He needs help keeping things in perspective. He shouldn’t expect a perfect score the first time he learns anything new. We can help him set reasonable goals and focus on the big picture first. Then he can begin working on the details.
Using our children’s temperaments to motivate them can preserve us from always having to push or pull. It can minimize power struggles, temper tantrums, stubborn refusals, or lack of direction. It can set the stage for real learning.
Connie Rossini gives whole families practical help to grow in holiness. She just released her latest book, A Spiritual Growth Plan for Your Choleric Child. She is also the author of Trusting God with St. Therese and the free ebook Five Lessons from the Carmelite Saints That Will Change Your Life. She writes a spirituality column for The Prairie Catholic of the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, and blogs at Contemplative Homeschool. She is also a columnist for SpiritualDirection.com. Connie and her husband Dan have four young sons.