01.07.2008 Relationships

True Colours

Forget today's penchant for labelling our children, says Nabila Cowasjee. Respect for the individual soul is paramount.

Once upon a time there was a
Little Soul who said to God,
"I know who I am!"
And God said, "That's wonderful!
Who are you?"
And the Little Soul shouted
"I'm the Light!"
God smiled a big smile.
"That's right!" God exclaimed.
"You are the Light."

Neal Donald Walsch –The Little Soul and the Sun

My almost daily walks along the beach often focus my attention to the footprints left by others who have walked a similar path. The path is the same but the shape, size and imprint their feet make are very different.The soles of the feet, be they the tiny, chunky ones of a toddler, the bold, high arched ones of an athlete or the flat footed, pointy toed one of an earthy dog walker, all make a definitive imprint, even if just for a few minutes before the sea encroaches and washes the sandy canvas clean again. These sole prints remind me that each human being on earth comes with a special way of interfacing with the world. Like the prints of our soles, our souls are our essence, integrated into all parts of our being, and require an open and saf echannel of expression.

"The Soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals"
Kahlil Gibran - The Prophet

The unfolding of the soul requires an acknowledgment that each child owns an individual way of expressing themselves and their talents. Each one of us is blessed with our own special way of turning on our own "light"and when we are encouraged and nurtured to respect and work in harmony with this ether, we naturally infuse all that we interact with positively in our own special way.

The marginalisation of Soul in our current times is a result of our movement away from a spiritual philosophy towards the primary preoccupation of satisfying our material and intellectual needs. The Soul is a side dish, reserved for those more inclined to a religious rather than a secular, good old common sense, life. All of us have similar physical urges that ensure survival,but how we view the world around us, and how we manage it in order to fulfill our material and emotional needs,seems to have something to do with a less tangible force that compels us to want to walk this life with a footprint like no other. Acknowledging and truly understanding a child's temperament is seminal to successful parenting. To know how and even why, your child acts,thinks and reacts in certain ways, which at times maybe different to what circumstances require, gives the parent and ultimately the child a personal power of immense value.

Looking back in history, temperament was viewed as an essential element of soul expression.

"The soul is related to the entire matter
whose temperament is prepared to receive that soul"

Ibn Sina

Temperament is inherent. It differs from personality in the sense that it is essentially innate, whereas personality is shaped by internal and external factors.We are born with our temperaments, and whilst there may be some overlay of one temperament with another during the course of our lives, what we get is essentially what we keep. Our inborn temperament is our true nature;it is what we fall back on when faced with a new situation. It will determine whether we are the take-charge type of person or the quiet, analytical one; the one who always wants to make new friends or the one that finds his true power in being left alone.

All the head honchos of history – philosophers,astrologers, physicians and alchemists – Plato,Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, Steiner and Jung, to name a few, all embraced a concept of temperament. The Latin root word for temperament, temperamentum, means mixture,and the Greeks, who evolved this theory, saw temperament as a mixture of qualities that form the Elements in physics, and Humors in medicine.

Early Medieval physiology, which employed concepts from Greek philosophy, looked at temperament from a presumption dependent on the notion that a human being contained varying proportions of our bodily fluids, the Humors: Blood (cheerfulness),phlegm (sluggishness and apathy), black bile (gloominess)and yellow bile (anger). How a person was treated medically or what expectations one would have of oneself in terms of career choice, marriage choice and all manner of personal expression, was rooted in which temperament was more prevalent in the soul.

By the 17th Century, individual differences began to lose their innate nature, and the role of environmental and sensory experience began to take precedence. People who reacted differently in the same situation did so because of different life experiences rather than different soul expression.

Nineteenth century psychoanalysts such as Freud took these ideas further and attributed differences in behaviour to drives or unconscious motivation. The steady rise of Behaviourism began to reign and ideas of innate temperament were all but eradicated in mainstream thought. However, anomalies in these Behaviourist theories – where "difficult" children often came from "good" families and apparently well adjusted children arose out of more chaotic and torturous conditions, commenced the journey back to realising temperament had a rightful place. Jung and Rudolph Steiner, in particular, resurrected temperament theories based on earlier philosophies and the use of the four main temperaments (Choleric, Sanguine,Phlegmatic and Melancholic) still underpin the whole educational philosophy in Waldorf Schools.

Current psychological thinking embraces this uniqueness in terms of accepting personality as the factor that distinguishes us from each other, but personality is often attributed to hereditary factors. We hear parents enthusiastically gabble on about how their son is like their husband and much entertainment is enjoyed from debating whether the new member of the family looks or acts like Auntie Ethel or Great Granddad George! It gives us great comfort to sort and categorise anything as wayward as a new soul. It makes us feel connected and safe, but to respect that the birth of a child is the birth of a new soul who will have a way of reacting with you and the world all of his own particular kind,is another link in the chain of successful parenting.

A recent excerpt from my son's primary schoolnewsletter saddened me. It began: "If there is no struggle there is no progress." It went onto outline Julia Gillard's speech on International Education and her opinion that current education is stuck in the past and needs to address the future more actively. It waxed lyrical about the importance of trade, English language skills, scientific research, skilled labour, globalisation and the demands of employers.The focus of this newsletter, which came from a primary school let's remember, was future employment, jobs and technology.

The fact that children are increasingly being guided to foster loyalty to a country and a global community over and above themselves begins to chafe uncomfortably.We live in an ever increasing community where children are sealed off from their own consciousness, where facts and statistics rule and decide. Attention is given to the physical, social and emotional welfare of a child but our attitude to childhood still lacks spirit and imagination. Birth has become an illness and the utility of the child, like all other social units, is calculated and engineered. Have we relinquished Soul in our crusade for the fantasy of a bigger, better life, and are our good intentioned measures of success unknowingly sacrificing each child's opportunity for self expression and happiness?

Today's educational model is constructed from the premise that what we learn in school in terms of skills and knowledge will provide a child with the ability to slot into a job that society needs him or her for,and that this, coupled with his or her personality requirements,(assuming that they haven't already been hammered out of them!) will provide fulfillment.

But temperament is often confused with ability. The fact that two children of the same age can be equally active, but one will find it easier than the other to express this through the skills and processes on offer, highlights the fact that physical, verbal, intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy can be articulated by different children in myriad ways: even non-expression is an expression. However,our culture tends to favour (in Steiner terms) children who display Choleric or Sanguine traits. Our whole society operates on the slash and burn techniques of the Choleric George Bush/John Howard temperament. If something is broken, fix it; if you don't like someone, confront them. These are the kids in the class who put their hand up first or even before the question has been asked.They are the head boy/girls types in high school and the wannabe CEOs of giant corporations.

The gentler end of this same spectrum is Sanguine. Here we have future Miss Congenialities, the secretaries of the student council who listen to Joplin and always have a glass of wine in their hand and a party to go to; affable, cheery, children who have the words "sociable"and "co-operative" peppered across their report cards. But what of all the other children and indeed adults who have equally useful traits, if expressed in different ways, who fall by the wayside struggling to match up to a system that thrives on goals, attainment targets, sports carnivals, examinations, and lots of loud cheering and razzmatazz?

I recently happened upon the work of American psychologist Elaine Aaron PhD, who has researched and written extensively about temperament. Her investigations have concluded that temperament is indeed of phenomenal importance. Knowing that we all have a differing temperament is crucial to wellbeing. Her particular study focuses on the 20 per cent of people who are what she terms "Highly Sensitive".

Her work threw a light on my existence and that of my own children like no other information has ever done before. Suddenly, the sun shone in my world and I felt entitled to my experience of life. All the labels I had cut out of my children's clothes, the socks I had to turn inside out, the pedantic methods of getting them to pre-school (which involved driving on specific roads, having certain things in lunch boxes and singing special songs), began to make sense. I had found valuable reasons for their so-called shyness, clinginess and fussiness. No longer was I a loser because partying two nights in a row left me incapable of brushing my teeth the next morning. Gone was the Doubting Thomas that poo-pooed my intuitive feelings about people, situations and places; even my faltering threshold for pain, both physical and emotional, had an explanation. I had been instantly freed of the guilt I have suffered from thinking I was just not strong enough to handle a full time career while bringing up two children. It isn't that I am weak; it's just that I am sensitive. Sensitive to energies, foods, music, art, experiences, moods, people, places and even to the weather. It's like being a dog who hears everything at a few decibels louder than a human does. It doesn't mean that this heightened sensitivity is a curse, or that such children and adults can not function in the world; in fact, we are desperately needed to balance out all that "warrior" energy with our "look both ways before you cross" philosophy.

To assume that each child must strive to fit in to a one dimensional world is as ridiculous to insist that a Rottweiler behave like a Golden Retriever. How you conduct yourself as the owner of a dog who has a gentle temperament versus the way you do with one whose innate nature requires a firmer hand is similar to the way one must parent. Each child needs to be handled differently,dependent on their predominant temperament.

Although we think we acknowledge that children have different ways of reacting to the world, all our systems and counselling procedures do still encourage us to adhere to the dominant world culture rather than attempt to really accept their differences or make them more personally conscious of the merits of diversity, which, in turn, can make them increasingly robust and successful in their own right. Without truly "seeing" all the varying colours on the temperament spectrum we are in danger of disabling our kids. By using a notion of temperament to whatever degree suits you as a parent, one is able to view children as whole individuals who don't necessarily need to change or match up to the umbrella ethos that pervades.

Of course, as with any label, there is always the pitfall of becoming overly obsessed by details and too stuck in our safe boxes. To fall victim to over sensitivity,for example, and fail to encourage our children to rise up to occasions outside their comfort zones, does little to support healthy self esteem or self empowerment. To learn to love and accept that one man's poison is another mans meat, to understand our own temperament and needs as a parent too, and find a balance between over and under identifying with one's child, brings a greater appreciation for all members of the family.

Truly accepting other realities, in the shape of alternative temperaments, cultures, philosophies or religions, can create deep respect for differences without any shame for who one is. This is a beautiful gift to pass onto the next generation, where one has learnt humility from the fact that no one perspective offers total understanding of the way we experience the world. To nurture a child's temperament so that they blossom to their fullest is an irreplaceable wisdom that helps construct a world that has room for all types, an ethos essential for the happiness and good health of each new soul in our custody.

References/Useful links:
Temperament: Astrology's Forgotten Key. Dorian Geiseler Greenbaum
The Highly Sensitive Child. Elaine N. Aron. PhD
The Four Temperaments. Rudolph Steiner

Preventative Ounce: www.preventitiveoz.org
Temperament Learning Centre: www.kidtemp.com

Nabila Cowasjee

Nabila Cowasjee is a Perth-based writer with a focus on children's health. http://umbilika.com