the tempted temperament

Original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. Clockwi...

The Adorable Four Temperaments Image via Wikipedia

Chances are you know a child like Sam. Sam, was a classmate of my daughter since kindergarten and I have watched him grow up. He is a sweet-natured kid. When he was young he was a really big boy with hands like mitts.  His eyes used to almost pop out of his head with excitement when food was presented.  Once, when my husband brought brownies to my daughter’s class in celebration of her birthday, Sam sized him up quickly and befriended him immediately. While waiting, he sidled up to my husband and whispered, “We better eat those brownies soon before they go raw.” The well-being of those brownies was of his utmost concern.

We know that there are two types of people–those who live to eat and those who eat to live. This attribute in individuals is one of those things we seem to just be born with. It is not necessarily defined by genetics or the environment. It is not inherently good or bad.

Amidst the fray about childhood obesity, there is an urgent need to uncover the causes and to implement solutions. External factors such as fast food, school lunches, excessive TV and computer use are the usual culprits, and of course, they are a part of the problem. However, missing from the dialogue is any mention of children’s natural dispositions. Though the external forces must be addressed, in overlooking or disregarding the nature of the individual child and the powerful relationship with the act and art of eating, we lose an opportunity to be sensitive to children with particular natures. Considering this piece may reveal some approaches to care and serve to remove the element of blame or human weakness from the child, as well as the parent.

Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks spoke of the four temperaments. The temperaments described different formative forces that human beings possess that give rise to different soul types. The model of the temperaments as a tool for understanding human nature was popular until the end of the Elizabethan Age. It has been the inspiration for many artistic endeavors and in the 1920s, philosopher Rudolf Steiner integrated it into his work on childhood development where today it remains an active piece of the Waldorf School Movement, which he developed.

The four defined temperaments are choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic. In brief, they can be defined as such: the choleric is strong-willed; the sanguine is light, wispy and perhaps flighty with many curiosities; the melancholic is sensitive, suffering, and self-conscious; and the phlegmatic is dreamy and slow in movement. The characters that inhabit A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood can serve as archetypes of the different temperaments. Tigger is choleric; Piglet is sanguine; Eeyore is melancholic; while Pooh is quintessentially phlegmatic.

In young children, one can easily see distinct aspects of the temperaments and a predominant constitution–though most healthy kids do exhibit some sanguine tendencies. The temperaments can manifest in all aspects of our beings. When it comes to a deeply passionate relationship with food, it is here that Sam and the phlegmatics reign. They live to eat, and accordingly, tend to have soft, round bodies and are most prone to becoming overweight. Remember Pooh’s sheer love of honey and how that devotion caused him to become stuck in the doorway of Rabbit’s house. Dear Pooh.

As most parents can attest, children’s natures become evident almost from birth. In the early years, one can often tell the phlegmatic children by body type along with behaviors. Phlegmatic infants are most likely roly-poly and slow and steady feeders. They are happy to lie in the crib cooing, playing with their hands and feet. With the introduction of solid food, they euphorically greet the oncoming spoon and are not easily distracted from eating. Phlegmatic children may take to walking and talking later than their peers and are generally easy-going.

With the attainment of verbal skills, these children frequently say “I’m hungry.” Though most healthy young children are often hungry due to high growth demands, the phlegmatic’s request for food seems to come less from actual physical hunger and more from a desire to be eating and digesting. This seemingly constant refrain of “I’m hungry” becomes one of the greatest challenges to the parents of a phlegmatic child, especially if the parents do not share that temperamental tendency themselves.

How does one respond to this repetitive declaration of hunger and cry for food? How does a parent distinguish between true physical hunger and emotional or digestive hunger? Does non-physical hunger lack validity and deserve to be ignored or denied?  How many times can a mother just look her cherubic child in the face and say no?  Phlegmatic children are quite endearing and can easily work their way into our hearts in Pooh-like fashion. Over restriction or overindulgence in feeding are both understandable reactions.

In being sensitive to the innate natures of our children at an early stage, we can adopt some feeding practices to better assist them in a healthy unfolding to adulthood. Phlegmatic children can be best served by being mindful of their enjoyment of eating but by providing them satisfaction with foods that are as healthy and naturally sweetened as possible. If no serious emotional issues seem present, then the parent sees to the careful provision of a varied diet at scheduled times and the child sees to their appetite. As the child gets older, helping them to find interests and activities, including physical pursuits that fit their temperament is important. If extreme weight issues can be avoided, the growing child will not be distracted by these matters and can then focus on the development of his or her natural abilities.

It is tempting to believe that we will one day whip all the children into proper shape by successful programming. It is also a commonly held belief that the overweight child is destined to a life of obesity. However, there may be more to be gained and less damage to be done from working with our children’s tendencies than fighting against them. I have observed many round kids morph into lean adolescents through a combination of factors including their genetic blueprint, hormonal changes and their own conscious ability to choose how to feed themselves. Sam is now sixteen. He is a high-level competitive rower. I think he might now be described as highly buff.  He recently told me, that once he discovered what he was interested in he found a way of eating that served his purpose.

The gifts of the phlegmatics are many. They are compassionate, serene, steady individuals capable of faithful and abiding love. They often possess natural musical and artistic abilities, and in the final analysis are the true geniuses–the slow, steady and thoughtful thinkers of our times. By viewing such children through this more compassionate lens we can tend to their care more appropriately and be inspired to feed them well with good intentions.

Were you a Tigger or a Pooh?

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In health, Elyn


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6 thoughts on “the tempted temperament

  1. I don’t imagine phlegmatic children smush their food into the tray or sweep it onto the floor, so I suspect Rose has only limited phlegmacism. She does love her edamame, though.

    Do you remember our junior high science books (or maybe it was sixth grade) in which they described people as being either jolly ectomorphs or energetic endomorphs? I bet they don’t include that anymore.

    Good post.

    – Dave


    • dear david, firstly, i do love the word phlegmacism. no, i don’t remember the attachment of cute adjectives to body types but that is funny. i imagine your sweet rose to be simply sanguine or a dear little piglet. glad she enjoys her edamame. (i still am planning to do something with that excellent and touching npr story you forwarded me the link to.) love, elyn


  2. Love the Sam story! Thanks for one more little dear nugget about that child 😉

    Emma and I think Tigger is more sanguine than choleric – not sure where to put piglet in that case, though! Maybe Rabbit is the choleric? I think I’ll claim the tiggooh label 😉


    • yes, i was thinkingthat a little about Tigger too. It’s that bouncy thing though that gets him labelled. High caloric expenditure on that little tendency. Rabbit has the more choleric attitude. we must consult with christopher robin i suppose.


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