"The temperaments alone make all multiplicity, beauty and fullness of life possible.” – Rudolf Steiner
Does your child have boundless energy, saying everything at top volume? Or is your child often lost in daydreams? Maybe you have a social butterfly, who skips and hops from one interest to the next.
While many different factors influence our children’s personalities, there are some traits they seem to be born with. This is the idea of temperament, a set of characteristics that are part of our intrinsic natures.
In Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner used the concept of the four temperaments, first conceptualized in ancient Greece, as one way to understand children, and meet their needs. Steiner elaborated on these ideas, and taught them to the first Waldorf teachers.
Waldorf teachers continue to use this framework today. It may influence seating plans, storytelling, main lessons, and more. As parents, seeing your child through this lens may give you new insights.
However, Waldorf teachers understand that temperament can and does shift over time. “We don’t hold the children firmly in one temperament. Even if they show some dominance, we know that it is likely to change when they get to be nine and older,” explained Mima Djordjevic, Sunrise Kindergarten Teacher. “They are tendencies, they don’t really define us.”
The Four Temperaments Explained
In this model, there are four main categories, each linked to an element – earth, air, fire, and water. They are sanguine (air), choleric (fire), melancholic (earth), and phlegmatic (water).
We all have each of the four temperaments. Steiner believed adults should work to harmonize the temperaments in themselves.
In his book, The Four Temperaments: Suggestions for Teachers, Helmut Eller explains some people may have as many as three predominant temperaments. So, even though we discuss temperament as though children fall neatly into categories, none of them do. Their personalities are unique, and they may show different temperaments in different situations.
Let’s take a look at each temperament, and (with Eller’s help) start to understand them.
Sanguine children are usually happy and carefree. They are said to love beautiful things and bright colours, and are the most social of the temperaments.
Eller describes them in this way: “Light and cheerful, spontaneous and confident, she openly approaches new situations … She makes new friends easily. She is quick to discover something new about her teacher, suddenly remembers all the things she wanted to tell him, bubbles over with the news — then runs away and hands out her birthday invitations. The sanguine child loves the world and other people and would like to embrace everyone.”
Choleric children are full of energy and intensity. They have strong wills and quick tempers.
Here is what Eller has to say about them: “A choleric child leads the way, constantly strives forward and energetically pursues her goal! Once it is achieved, she immediately seeks a new one! Determination and drive go hand in hand! We can sense something forceful, energetic, quick-witted, vigorous and decisive! Sheer willpower! Firm goals are set and forcefully pursued! You get the impression whatever she plans will be carried out tenaciously and thoroughly!”
Melancholic children tend to be cautious, and take a measured approach. They are also very sensitive and feel things deeply.
Here is how Eller sees them: “He feels much more at home in his inner world — in his thoughts, emotions and even dreams. He loves inner and outer peace and quiet and behaves sensitively and tactfully. He doesn’t like bothering other people, which is why he usually keeps to himself. He is a master of self-control and self-criticism. He therefore observes others closely and is capable of suffering deeply with them. His great assets are his ability to think things through seriously and to sympathize and empathize with others.”
Children with more phlegmatic tendencies tend to be inwardly directed, like the melancholic children, but are dreamier and more contented.
Here are Eller’s thoughts: “He experiences things sentimentally and, whenever possible, comfortably and cozily as well, because he encounters the world around him with a feeling of well-being at his own leisurely, unhurried pace. Nothing can get him worked up. He particularly relishes everything that has to do with regularity and rhythm, which is why he can spend a lot of time doing things he enjoys. His great assets are patience, endurance, calmness and peacefulness. He would never insult anyone. He enjoys situations that make him feel good and has no desire to change them.”
Are any of those personalities familiar? If not, it may be helpful to think of your child in different situations to see if any patterns arise.
The Temperaments at Home
Each temperament has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, phlegmatic children are easy-going, but can become too inactive. Choleric children are born leaders, but their quick tempers can be challenging for them to manage.
Ms. Mima said, “We help them to develop and change. We help them to balance.”
Here are some ideas from Steiner, Eller, and Ms. Mima on how to work with each temperament at home.
According to Steiner, sanguine children are most inspired by their love of parents or teachers. He said, “Everything must be done to awaken love in such a child. Love is the magic word.”
Since sanguine children can be distractible, Steiner recommended helping them find greater focus by supporting them in one special interest. In regard to subjects that don’t hold the children’s focus as long, he suggested introducing them to the children for a little while, then removing them until the children are interested again.
Ms. Mima advises parents to help their more sanguine children stay focused too. “Let’s say they decide to do baseball, then they want to do soccer, you should encourage them to stick with something a little longer.”
A recommendation from Eller:
Increase their attention spans by looking closely at an object of interest together (a picture, for example), and pointing out details they might have missed.
Steiner believed that choleric children would best engage with the adults in their lives through respect. “For the choleric child one must be thoroughly worthy of esteem and respect in the highest sense of the word.” Choleric children want to know their elders are knowledgeable and in control.
Steiner advised adults to stay calm and collected in the face of a choleric child’s anger. “With the choleric child, try to become inwardly apathetic, to watch coolly when he has a temper tantrum.”
Ms. Mima recommends helping more choleric personalities to appreciate others’ needs. For example, telling a child, “It’s important that other people have a chance to choose the game or decide where to go.”
Other recommendations from Steiner:
Give them challenges to work through.
Make sure they get plenty of exercise.
Show them your talents and skills.
Since melancholic children can be too inwardly focused, especially on their own suffering, Steiner recommends helping them focus on the needs of others.
He said, “The melancholic child is capable of suffering, of moroseness. These qualities exist in him and we cannot flog them out, but we can divert them. Above all we must show the melancholic child how people can suffer.” This could mean listening sympathetically to a complaint about a hurt your child received on the playground, and then reminiscing about a time you got stitches at the same age.
Ms. Mima advised, “Give them comfort and compassion. Hold them and say, ‘I know that must hurt, but it will get better. Our bodies know how to get better.’” She explained it’s important to do this with a sense of lightness, instead of becoming too wrapped up in the child’s problem.
Encourage melancholic children to actively help others. (Eller)
Ask them challenging questions. (Steiner)
Set aside time each day to talk to them about any subject they want. (Eller)
Where Steiner thought sanguine children would be most influenced by love for an adult, he thought phlegmatic children would do best when connected to other children. “He must have playmates with the most varied interests.” He saw this as a way to help them become more active and engaged with the world around them.
Parents, then, should give phlegmatic children plenty of opportunities to make friends, and have play dates.
“Phlegmatic children can sometimes be overlooked because they don’t cause problems, they go with the flow,” said Ms. Mima. She went on to explain that phlegmatic children sometimes forget to look out for their own interests. She advises parents to help these children advocate for themselves.
Other recommendations from Eller:
Create a calm and stable home environment.
Allow them extra time to get ready in the mornings.
Ask them questions at regular intervals to keep them engaged.
The Temperaments Enrich Our Lives
Even though each temperament can present its own unique set of challenges, and as Steiner wrote, they also make life full and beautiful. As you journey through life with your children, enjoy them, and their unique personalities.
Eller H. The Four Temperaments: Suggestions for Teachers. Waldorf Publications. 2018. https://www.waldorflibrary.org/books/3/view/52/ebooks/751/the-four-temperaments-ebook