The Four Temperaments of Children

And how to motivate your child based on their personality

“Too often parents interpret a child’s behavior as rebelliousness, when in fact she is just being true to her nature…One of the most generous gifts you can give your child is to study her temperament and once you’ve learned it, work to accept it.” Wendy Mogel, Blessing of a Skinned Knee

There are so many ways we can describe our children’s personality and temperament: fun loving, a people person, intense, shy, a book worm. A person’s personality is defined as the totality of somebody’s, attitudes, behavioral patterns, emotional responses, social roles and other individual traits that are innate, predisposed and endure over a long period of time.

Temperament is a preferred, most natural style of how we respond to the world.

I am always hesitant to label children, however understanding a child’s personality and temperament can only be a plus. Differences in personality and temperament impact a child’s behavior in myriads of ways. Take the ‘slow to warm up’ child. That child is not being rude when he refuses to kiss the out of town relatives; he just needs a bit of time to get used to them.

When we understand our child’s personality and temperament, we can better communicate with them and understand them in deeper ways. We can then try to accommodate their unique and individual needs. It will make both our lives easier.

So when we are dealing with a ‘slow to warm up’ child, instead of getting frustrated and annoyed with them, we will understand that they need time to get used to new situations. Then we will more likely to prepare them beforehand, stay close by until they feel comfortable and reassure them, “Right now you don’t feel comfortable, but in a few minutes you will.”

Gretchen Rubin, in her book, “The Four Tendencies” takes this idea even further. She created a framework that describes how people respond to inner and outer expectations.

There are: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. She contends that your tendency shapes every aspect of your behavior. If you understand your tendency then you will be able to make better decisions, work more effectively reduce your stress and most important create good habits and follow through on your goals. Knowing your tendency helps you understand why you act on your goals and why you may not on your goals.

  1. Upholders meet inner and outer expectations. They love rules, having a clear plan and are self-motivated and disciplined. Clearly tell them what needs to be done and they’ll lead the way.
  2. Questioners meet their own expectations but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do. Make it clear why what you want from them is important.
  3. Obligers meet other people’s expectations easily but struggle with their own. They must be held accountable by a friend, coach or boss to get things done. They thrive when they have a sense of duty and can work in a team.
  4. Rebels defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality. Give them the facts, present the task as a challenge and let them decide without pressure.

This information is important for parents to know. So much of what we do as parents involves how to motivate children, (i.e. get them out of bed in the morning, get them to do their chores) discipline them (deliver consequences when they don’t follow through) and help them develop and follow through on their goals (pick a topic for their history project, choose a summer camp or college). Understanding how children respond to expectations, whether they are an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel, can be invaluable. Rubin suggests that parenting strategies should take into consideration a child’s tendency or it should, “talk to” the tendency’s values.

Here is how this can work:


If your child is an upholder, he/she will be pretty easy to raise. Teachers love upholders too. They are self-motivated and want to meet expectations. They are generally responsible about their homework and chores around the house and have all their school supplies on hand and are on time.  However, they would not be called laid back or spontaneous and can be inflexible. They cannot handle changes in plans, transitions, and dealing with situations when the rules are unclear.

Rubin encourages parents of Upholders, when up against their child’s iron clad following of rules, to explain, “Your teacher expects you to read for 30 minutes a night, but because we went to visit Grandma, it will be bedtime by the time we get home. A good night’s sleep will make you alert for school tomorrow and that’s more important than reading tonight.”

With Upholders “Those arguments will work better than…’You deserve it’, ‘The teacher won’t know you skipped one day.’”


Questioners are the children who are constantly asking for explanations of why they have to do what they are doing. They are often rebuked for being disrespectful. They are often accused of challenging authority, when really they are intensely curious. They will only do things if it makes sense to them. They need logical reasons to comply to any demands made of them. “Setting the table now helps dinner run smoothly. Everyone will have the utensils they need and we can sit comfortably and enjoy dinner.”

Most kids do not respond well to the typical parenting answers of “Because I say so,” “We’ve always done it this way,” “This what you have to do” or “These are the rules.” However, Questioners (and rebels) have a particularly difficult time with these types of phrases.

Many teachers appreciate Questioners because they keep class discussions going, but they also feel that they slow down the class with their constant queries and may also feel that they are being disrespectful.

Rubin points out that “Questioners can have a hard time in school because they resist doing mundane academic tasks that don’t make sense to them. It is helpful if … parents can give thoughtful justifications for why they have to complete assignments. If a questioner student asks, ‘Why do I need to know about ancient Mesopaotamia? This will never be of any use to me!’ a teacher might respond unhelpfully, ‘This is what we’re studying now, so get with the program,” or helpfully, ‘You’re learning about Mesopotamia true, but this assignment is teaching you much more. You’re learning how to analyze complex material quickly, how to pull essential ideas out of a text, how to take notes efficiently, and how to explain ideas in your own words. There are important skills that will serve you well.’”


Obliger children are generally easy because they like to please the adults in their lives. However, they do need external measures of accountability. Parents need to help them find systems outside of themselves that will help them enforce expectations. They have a hard time doing homework, practicing the piano or getting their chores done if someone is not holding them accountable.

Although it can be frustrating for parents, these children need gentle reminders. Incentive charts work well for these children. Positive reinforcement is a must: “That was a big help to me when you cleaned up all the toys in the family room.”

Obliger children will do well with sports metaphors: “Team Cohen is getting ready for our road trip. Let’s get the bags in the car!” “Our family works together. We are a great team!”

It is important to make sure that Obliger children don’t work too hard to please others. They are easily overwhelmed and they may lose sight of what makes them feel happy or fulfilled. They are often doing favors for their friends and are taken advantage of.


Rebel children are often challenging because they refuse to do what they are told to do. They like to make their own choices and they resist any expectations. They need to feel as is they are doing what they want, not what others want them to do.

Rebel children need our love and understanding, probably more so then our other children. They are often knocking up against people and limits. It can be exhausting to have an internal dialogue that does not allow you to follow the rules of society, to always feel the need to push back.

To maintain a loving relationship with these children it is important to avoid direct commands. When parents say to a rebel child, “Say thank you to Mrs. Cohen,” the child will most likely dig in their heels and refuse to comply. This may be the case even if he had planned on saying thank you on his own.

Rubin suggests the following procedure when speaking to all children, but with Rebels it is essential:

  1. Provide information: “I think Mrs. Cohen is going to give us some tomatoes from her garden today. Gardeners usually love to share their produce. They work really hard, so let’s remember to say thank you.”
  2. Tell them the positive consequences of their behavior: “If we thank Mrs. Cohen, she will be more likely to give us more tomatoes in the future. She might even let us help out in the garden!”
  3. Give them choices: “You can say or whisper thank you. You could also make her a card.”
  4. Let them decide: “The way you say ‘thank you’ is all up to you.”

Whatever tendency your child exhibits, they need our love, care and understanding.

About the Author:

Adina Soclof is a Parent Educator, Professional Development Instructor and Speech Pathologist working with children in a school setting. She received her BA. in History from Queens College and her MS. in Communication Sciences from Hunter College. Adina is the founder of She delivers parenting classes as well as professional development workshops for Speech Pathologists, Teachers and other health professionals. You can find her text based CEU courses at and video courses at and

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