There is good reason to believe that babies are born with personal dispositions that shape how they respond to their experiences. Some babies are more relaxed from the earliest weeks, giving you enchanting smiles on a regular basis. For others, life appears to be a more serious business. A baby of a similar age, even the next baby in this same family, may produce a frown as often as a smile.
Individual differences in childhood tend to be called temperament, to distinguish the idea from personality, a word that is more often used for individual differences in adulthood. The actual words matter less than our understanding of each child and how we can be supportive adults who do not label children for their inclinations.
Some children are by nature more physically lively than their peers. From babyhood, Sammy, for example, has used every physical skill in a vigorous way to get across the room and start exploring, whereas Kim tends to stay put in one place, interested enough to explore, but waiting for that interest to be brought close by an adult.
Of course, adults draw their own conclusions from children's preferences.
Did you assume Sammy was a boy? She could be Samantha; and Kim is sometimes a boy's name. Might some adults feel Kim is 'too passive' if he is a little boy, whereas a little girl is being 'good'? As a nanny, it may be very important that you offer Sammy an active part in any event or routine.
Sitting and watching may be too difficult, especially in the early years.
Young children vary in how they relate to new faces and how swiftly they warm up in social situations. Greta may very much want to watch other children before she joins, and she resists performing in a group. Even with people she knows, she finds it hard to reply to lively welcoming remarks or questions.
You can help Greta by allowing her time to warm up. You can be encouraging as she holds your hand in the drop-in group. You can scan the room with her as she gets ready to choose. Above all, you can support her if other adults announce that Greta is 'shy'. Labels can restrict children and do not help them to build up their ability to cope.
Some children are more wary, especially with unfamiliar experiences. Alec may look and act in an anxious way when faced with a turn of events that he does not recognise. If adults or other children try to push him past his worries, he gets distressed and is even less likely to risk himself in new situations.
Perhaps, as Alec's nanny, you have observed that his mother is much more likely to consider what can go wrong than what could go right. Alec may well have learned from his mother's anxious remarks about, 'But what if...?' However, Alec's younger sister, Susie, has a much more 'leap and then look' perspective on life. Susie's temperament has made her less inclined to imitate her mother's worrying.
As the children's nanny, you need to respond sensitively to each child's strengths. Alec does not deserve to be labelled as a 'worrywart' or 'timid'. He will learn to be a little bolder if his feelings are acknowledged and he is helped to stretch himself one step at a time, physically and emotionally.
Susie's adventurous outlook, too, can be appreciated and you can help her to develop a little more caution. At the climbing frame you may have to say, 'Wait just a moment. Let's see where you're going to land. Right, off you go. What a big jump!' On the other hand, Alec will need help too - 'Well done, you've climbed up another three steps today. I bet you'll get to the top any day now!'
Strength of emotions
Young children have a full range of feelings but they are in the process of learning about their emotions and how to express them in words as well as actions. Children's 'emotional volume' varies, and supportive nannies need to watch and learn about the individuals who are their responsibility.
Perhaps Ciaran reacts strongly to any event. When a day goes well he is enthused and wants everyone to share his excitement. When anything goes even slightly awry, it is a total disaster. Living with such a rollercoaster of emotions can be wearing for Ciaran's nanny. But he will not learn to recognise and deal with his emotions if his reactions are labelled as 'over-excited' or if he is told that he has got 'far too upset'
about the water spilled over his painting.
Sometimes you may find the actual emotion grates on you. Children, like adults, can seem to fall into two types: those who see life as a 'half full' or as a 'half empty' bottle. You may tend to look on the bright side and find that Josh's 'half empty' perspective seems like whingeing. You are just experiencing a mismatch between your temperament and that of the child.
Inclinations, not labels
You can help children to stretch their ability to cope beyond the boundaries set initially by their individual temperament. But all supportive adults have to recognise where children are located at the moment, in terms of what seems easier or more challenging for them.
We can help by avoiding any labels for children, even if we feel the label is a compliment. Any label gives a child less opportunity to be flexible - and human. You need to respect that children will sometimes react 'against type'. Children who are usually inclined to co-operate must be allowed occasions when they do not want to co-operate. They should not be criticised with comments like, 'But you're my little helper', or 'Now Danny, that's not like you, is it?'
Children who are generally positive in outlook have to be allowed their less happy moments, without being ordered to 'cheer up!' or teased 'where's that happy face?'. They need their feelings acknowledged with more sensitive comments such as, 'You look a bit sad' or 'Has something happened to make you unhappy?'
Listen to the children's comments on your behaviour, too; they will help you learn about your dispositions as an adult and those aspects that they may find harder to handle. Perhaps they say, 'Have we done something naughty? You've got your cross face on'. Or they remark that you have on what they call your 'worry face'. Sometimes the expression only means you are thinking hard, not worried at all - and they will understand when you explain.
Children will let you know about match and mismatch of temperament as they experience it. You can adjust appropriately. Perhaps they say, 'You're always so serious', and you realise that you need to express your enthusiasm more openly. Alternatively, the children may feel that it is you who gets 'over-excited', for good or bad, and you realise that they want you to adjust your emotional volume to tune in more with theirs.
THE DARK SIDE MAY BE RIGHT
Children who always look on the gloomy side can bring you down, especially if you prefer to focus on what there is to be pleased about in any situation. Anne has been nanny to four-year-old Pippa for five months now.
Anne has found that she and Pippa take a very different perspective on life. Pippa's father admits ruefully that he tends to highlight what has gone wrong rather than right in his working life. He has agreed with Anne that it will help Pippa if he lets her hear each evening what he has enjoyed about his day.
Anne tries to encourage Pippa to find 'three good things to say about...'
anything that they do together, rather than 'I wish we had...' or 'if only...'
But Anne has realised that Pippa sometimes has a fair point; she is not whingeing all the time. Yesterday they went round to tea with another local nanny. On reflection, Anne realised that Pippa's complaints were justified, because she had not enjoyed the event at all. But Pippa did not know how to express her feelings in words that were easy for Anne to understand. Anne would like to be friends with the other nanny, but Pippa did not like the child in this other household. Anne's talking about the children as 'friends' just annoyed Pippa, who wailed, 'She's not my friend and she was horrid to me and her house smells funny!' Anne had to agree with rather than deny her feelings.