Gifts From the Ancients: The 4 Temperaments and Our Children

October 17, 2019 Updated: October 17, 2019

Mary and George are like the proverbial peas in a pod. They enjoy nothing more than a quiet night of reading by the fireplace or sharing a bottle of wine on the deck while the kids romp in the yard. They are generally go-along, get-along folks, savoring tranquility, able to take a stand on an important matter but disliking arguments and raised voices, leading by way of example rather than command, delighting more in a leisurely afternoon at the beach than in some high-powered office party.

Then there’s Grace, their 10-year-old who takes charge of her younger brother and sister like a junior Napoleon. Grace is bright, impatient, and practical. She dislikes schoolgirl drama and can argue with the fierce tenacity of a lawyer—“Why do I have to go to bed so early?” “Why can’t I wear these shoes with this dress?” Like some radio commentators and pundits, she believes she’s right all the time. When friends come to play, it’s Grace who leads the activities, assigns kids to teams, determines whether they should play kickball or perform a play she’s written, and makes sure Sammy keeps his hands off the cookies until she’s poured milk for everyone.

Mary and George are cool summer breezes; Grace is a whirlwind, issuing orders, making demands, racing through her schoolwork, and questioning authority.

Another scenario: Like his parents, 16-year-old Mark is Congeniality personified, not just at school but wherever he goes. He has hordes of friends, loves parties, noise, and commotion, and leaves laughter in his wake. He’s the kid who gets in trouble for talking in class but charms his teachers, the son who tells his father on Wednesday he wants to attend the local community college when he graduates high school and on Thursday mentions joining the Marines.

Jack, his 14-year-old brother, couldn’t be more different from the rest of the family. He treasures his solitude. He’d prefer spending an evening at home playing his guitar or watching a movie to loud parties or rock concerts. Unlike Mark, Jack needs time to reflect on decisions, debating like some teenage Hamlet whether he should spend his gift money from Grandpa on running shoes—he likes cross country because it’s a solitary sport—or on art supplies for quiet, timid Sheila, his closest friend in school.

With all these differences, parents may be forgiven if on occasion they look at a child, so dramatically unlike themselves, raise an eyebrow, and wonder, “Where on earth did you come from?”

The Greeks long ago wondered the same thing. In one of the first attempts to categorize human personalities, Hippocrates and others devised the theory of temperaments. They divided people into four groups—phlegmatic (Mary and Sam), choleric (Grace), sanguine (Mark), and melancholic (Jack). For hundreds of years, Western European thinkers and theologians adhered to this system of classification.

Though this use of temperaments to help us understand the nature of others faded in modern times, some psychologists and counselors have revived the idea, finding in this ancient practice a useful template for the study of human personality and for helping individuals build on their strengths and blunt their weaknesses.

One example of this resurrection may be found in “The Temperament God Gave Your Kids: Motivate, Discipline, and Love Your Children” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012, 187 pages, $14.95). Though this guide has a Catholic slant, parents of any religious faith may find it instructive and helpful in raising children. Here, Art and Laraine Bennett introduce readers to the four temperaments, spice this examination with lively accounts of their own experiences, and show readers how recognition of the different temperaments can provide a deeper understanding of their children.

Below are brief descriptions of these four temperaments.

Phlegmatic. Phlegmatic souls like Mary and George treasure peace and quiet. “Count your blessings for a phlegmatic child!” the Bennetts tell us. “He is a joy—so peaceful, quiet, cooperative, and obedient that you will be forever spoiled.” As they also point out, however, the flip side is that phlegmatics often become followers, willing to go with the flow, people pleasers who may lack initiative or the will to defend their opinions.

Choleric. Like Grace in the example above, cholerics tend to be strong-willed and determined. They learn quickly, are always ready to voice their opinions or debate a point, and are persistent in reaching a goal. But as the Bennetts tell us, they can also be “impatient, stubborn, interruptive, quick-tempered, and occasionally lacking in empathy.”

Sanguine. Mark and his parents are sanguines. They love the social life, bringing sunshine and high spirits wherever they go. Sanguines are the opposite of melancholics: extroverted, noisy, and easily distracted. Their chief weakness is a tendency toward superficiality: skimming through school assignments, attracted to social media, unable to stay motivated through a difficult chore.

Melancholic. Melancholics like Jack tend toward seriousness, reflection, and solitude. They carefully think through situations, are often shy and sensitive, and are self-reliant. “The weaknesses of this temperament are that he or she can be moody and withdrawn, overly self-conscious, and perfectionist.”

What gives value to “The Temperament God Gave Your Kids,” and other books and websites addressing this topic, is the advice by the authors on such issues as reining in the choleric’s impatience or teaching the melancholic how to deal with his moods. We can also discover what to do when our own temperaments are so mismatched with those of our children.

So how about it? Is there any value in becoming acquainted with the four temperaments?

Other than what I learned years ago from my study of history, I knew little about the temperaments until a friend slipped me a copy of the Bennetts’ book two months ago and asked me to write a review for a magazine. I began reading as a skeptic—to place personality types into four categories, even allowing for blends, seemed too simplistic to me, psychological hocus-pocus. As I read, however, I found myself gaining insights into my grandchildren. Here was an apt description of the one who is strongly choleric, boisterous, always sure of himself. Here was his brother who, like me—I took an online test—qualifies as a blend of melancholic and phlegmatic. Here was the sanguine granddaughter who likes to be the center of attention and loves the performing arts, especially when she is the performer.

And so on down the list.

To know these qualities has led me to a deeper understanding of these young people. I can encourage the choleric grandson to continue to develop his leadership skills through school activities while practicing patience with people and learning how to handle setbacks. I can appreciate his younger brother’s thoughtful and quiet ways while introducing him to new activities and social situations whenever possible.

“Understanding temperament,” write the Bennetts, “helps us become more loving, forgiving, and helpful to our children.”

Agreed.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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