What We’re Getting Wrong About The Candidates’ Temperaments

07/31/2016 05:43 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2016

We’ve heard a lot about temperament in the presidential race. Both presidential candidates have exchanged barbs about the suitability of each other’s temperaments for handling the responsibilities of the president. The pundits also have weighed in ― comparing and contrasting the temperaments of the candidates. Words like “volcanic”, “impulsive”, and “careless” are being used to describe their temperaments.

As a temperament researcher, I find their comments about temperament to be laden with myths and misconceptions. Temperament itself is a neutral concept that explains normal stylistic variations in emotions, attention, and behavior. It should never be equated with behavioral disorders or psychiatric diagnoses. Instead temperament is the consistent style of reacting that an individual demonstrates across a variety of settings, particularly those that involve stress or change. Temperament is also a lens through which an individual’s interpret their life’s experiences.

Temperament is biologically based and not easily changed. In fact, trying to change a child’s temperament is counter-productive and relays a lack of sensitivity to a child’s core self. Instead responsive parents and teachers support children in learning how to regulate their temperament when they encounter temperamentally challenging situations. For example, a child who is temperamentally shy can, with enough support, initiate a conversation with a new classmate. Or a child who is easily distracted can learn strategies that will help her finish an assignment.  

Regardless of the challenges each temperament affords, no temperament is a license for bad behavior. Aggressive disruptive behavior, name-calling, and bullying are examples of bad behavior that should not be tolerated. Instead children can be taught social and emotional skills that better equip them to navigate life’s bumpy terrains. Children who have learned to regulate their temperament are good at recognizing their own feelings and those of others. They also manage their emotions constructively, establish positive relationships, set realistic goals, problem-solve and resolve conflicts.

Long before Hillary Clinton was the 2016 democratic candidate for president– in fact, long before Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State ―there was a puppet named Hilary the Hard Worker. 

Hilary the Hard Worker 
Sandee McClowry
Hilary the Hard Worker 

Along with her puppet colleagues, Freddy the Friendly, Coretta the Cautious, and Gregory the Grumpy, Hilary the Hard Worker has been teaching children in elementary school that depending on one’s particular temperament, some situations are easy to manage and others are challenging. Without such insights, children (and adults) think that everyone is constitutionally the same. Instead the puppets help children learn about their own temperaments while gaining empathy towards each other.

For example, Hilary the Hard Worker is industrious. She likes to get work done and takes great pride in her accomplishments. As a result, her teacher is usually pleased with her. Not everyone is enamored by Hilary the Hard Worker. Some children and puppets are annoyed by her serious nature. They complain that Hilary the Hard Worker is bossy. In addition, Hilary the Hard Worker is perfectionist that is easily frustrated when life does not meet her high standards. With the help of the children and the other puppets, Hilary the Hard Worker can learn better ways to express her feelings and collaboratively solve dilemmas.

Hilary the Hard Worker is not the only puppet whose temperament has strengths and challenges. Freddy the Friendly is very social and often forgets to temper his enthusiasm.

Freddy the Friendly 
Sandee McClowry
Freddy the Friendly 

Coretta the Cautious is shy and reticent to participate in new activities.

Coretta the Cautious 
Sandee McClowry
Coretta the Cautious 

And Gregory the Grumpy is high maintenance.

Gregory the Grumpy 
Sandee McClowry
Gregory the Grumpy 

He reacts strongly and negatively to life’s everyday occurrences. Gregory the Grumpy has a lot of difficulty modulating his temperament. With real effort, he, too, can learn strategies for self-regulation ― but that’s a whole other story.

Now back to our campaign: no one has a temperament that disqualifies him or herself from being president. But individuals who have insights into their own temperament have learned to regulate their emotions, attention, and behavior in temperamentally challenging situations. So, it’s not temperament that makes someone suitable to be President of the United States. It’s self-regulation.

Sandee McClowry, PhD, RN, FAAN

Professor, NYU Steinhardt and Counseling@NYU

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