Understanding temperament

There are two extremes of thought about human beings and personality. One says that everyone is basically the same, and that with similar circumstances and parenting will end up much the same as adults. The other extreme suggests that because we each have unique DNA, there is nobody like us. As a result, this theory claims and nobody can ever truly understand or appreciate anyone else. Theories of personality and temperament abound, as attempts to categorise or explain human behaviours.

People are different!

Anyone who has raised more than one child will realise immediately that the first extreme simply isn’t the case. There are many families where siblings are radically different from each other despite similar upbringing. One might be outgoing and bossy, the other quiet and unassuming. One might be musical, another mathematically inclined. Birth order may play some part in this. But it’s not always the oldest child who is the most outgoing and organised. Nor is the youngest necessarily the most selfish or clingy.

The second extreme has some truth in it: we are all unique individuals. Not even identical twins are exactly the same. However, there are observable ways in which groups of people are similar. There are also ways in which some clearly differ from other groups. For instance, some people like to construct rules and guidelines to ensure a family, or company, or even a country runs along ‘moral’ principles. Other people see freedom and artistic expression as more important than rules. They tend to feel that there should be as few rules as possible. Neither group is always right, or always wrong: there is room for both styles.

Temperament theory

Psychologists and people-watchers the world over, since ancient times, have tried to work out patterns of behaviour which enable us to understand people better. Many different systems have resulted. One of the common themes running through the centuries is that of four ‘temperaments’. One modern understanding of this is known as Keirseyan Temperament Theory (KTT). It proposes that while nobody can predict exactly how anyone will behave, there are four broad kinds of people. These are observable across all cultures and generations. Each kind, the theory claims, have a unique set of core needs and values. How we develop as we grow up depends very much on our childhood circumstances. But – so the theory goes – we are born with our temperament. Moreover, we never lose the particular set of traits or preferences that go with it. We may learn about or develop the others effectively, but our core remains.

The four temperaments are known as: Artisans, Guardians, Idealists and Rationals. In the USA, about 40% of the population are Artisans, around the same or a little more are Guardians. Only around 10% are Rationals, and around 8% Idealists. It is likely that the European population has a similar spread of temperaments.


Artisans have core needs of impact and freedom. They value variety and skills. This does not mean they are lawbreakers by nature. However, rules are less important to them than their freedom to be creative or to make an impression in the world around them. Many people with this temperament are artistic or musical in some way. This is because their primary focus is on the present – on what they can see, and hear, and touch. Young Artisan children may love experimenting with arts and crafts, and will often do so without any prompting or teaching. They may also enjoy ball games, or other physical play. Many of them are happiest when they can explore the sensory world in their own way. They need as few restrictions as possible for maximum development.

Some Artisans love excitement such as team sports or car racing, and some may seem reckless at times. Artisans tend to be very good with tools of all kinds – whether electrical power-tools or paintbrushes – and at making a room or a stage look just right. They often have problems with routine chores that have little sensory appeal, such as remembering to keep financial accounts. Sometimes they dress in flamboyant ways so as to stand out or set a new trend; if they don’t, it’s because they’re trying to create a different kind of image. Of all people, Artisans are most in tune with what someone’s appearance says about them, and are also happy to create new looks.

Artisans tend to like mainly concrete language, and are not particularly interested in structure. They tend to  use tools and other objects in a pragmatic way rather than looking to either consensus or convention.


Guardians have core needs of belonging and responsibility. They value security and predictability, and tend to be the people who like structure to their day. Guardians believe that rules and regulations help keep people on the right track. They may query rules that don’t seem right to them, but are generally uncomfortable breaking either rules or conventions. A small Guardian child is likely to want order in his or her life. Some naturally want regular times for eating and sleeping. He or she may naturally put toys away, even sorting crayons and pencils, if you demonstrate how to do so. For a Guardian, there needs to be a place for everything.

It is important to a Guardian to keep his or her promises. As they grow up, they tend to be both loyal and highly responsible. Guardians often identify with a group of others, so they like being in clubs, or groups. As teenagers they may be patriotic towards their country, or stand up for their sports team or family. It seems right to them to do so. A teenage Guardian may dress in a way that seems outrageous, not fitting with the naturally responsible type. If so, it is likely to be because it helps him or her fit in with a group of friends who dress similarly. Guardians are less likely to be trend-setters like Artisans.

Guardians, like Artisans, tend to be mainly concrete in their language, although in rather a different way. They are focussed on structure in their lives. When using tools or other objects, they tend to do so in a traditional way.


Idealists have core needs of significance and unique identity. They value authenticity and empathic relationships. Even those who are quiet and shy have a great need for caring people around them, and a quite small Idealist child can have a remarkable empathy, knowing exactly when adults around are tense or angry. An Idealist child, more than any other, needs to know that he is loved unconditionally, and that his parents accept him for who he is. He is the most likely to be a people-pleaser, and to lose sight of his own wishes, so it’s important to ensure he is always listened to. Idealists tend to be happy to go along with most parental requests, but it’s vital not to take them for granted or to assume they have no opinions of their own.

Idealists need to express themselves, and tend to quite gifted in languages – both verbal and written. If they have musical or artistic skill, encourage them gently. They won’t take such delight in the sensory pleasures of art and music as Artisans do. But they will still benefit from these alternative ways of communicating. They may well become deeply involved in religious or ‘fair trade’ issues in their teens and adult years. More than any other type, Idealists need those around them who understand them and accept them fully.

Idealists are more interested in abstract than concrete language, preferring metaphors and stories to plain facts. Like Artisans, they are not usually very interested in structure, focussing more on what motivates themselves and others. But they don’t have the independence of Artisans either. When using a tool or other item, they want to ensure that others around them are happy for them to do so.


Rationals have a core need for competence and knowledge. They value logic and progress, and take interest in underlying structures to theories and technology. They don’t object to rules that make sense, but will challenge or disobey those which don’t make sense, without qualms. When a Rational child queries an adult request or command, he is not being rebellious: he needs to know why. When you take time to explain reasons behind your requests, most Rational children are happy to accept them. They respect those whom they perceive as competent. But equally they expect adults to take their questions seriously and to answer without condescension. Many Rationals will teach themselves skills such as reading or multiplication at a young age, so long as they are encouraged to do so in their own way.

An older Rational child will tend to be highly self-motivated, easily learning topics that interest him or which he perceives as useful for his future. Equally, he will be bored with, or even despise topics for which he can see no reason. Since it is so important for a Rational to develop competence, it’s vital for parents to find some skill where he can excel – whether in an academic subject, a musical instrument, computer use, or something else.

Rationals, like Idealists, are primarily interested in abstract language, although in not quite the same way: they’re often interested in theories or technology, and happily use jargon. They’re less likely to use flowery metaphors or fiction. Like Artisans, they can be quite independent when using objects; their prime focus is on the most efficient way of getting things done, so they’re less likely to worry about traditions or concensus.

Distinguishing temperaments

At first glance, it may seem as if you and your family fit into more than one of these temperaments. Indeed, it can be extremely difficult to tell our own temperaments because our core needs are so deep within us that we take them for granted, and may see those of another temperament as more relevant – perhaps because our parents talked about them a lot and so we’ve taken them on board. A questionnaire like the Keirsey temperament sorter may help you determine your temperament, but not necessarily since we’re products of our environment as well as our core. Besides that, some of the questions can seem ambiguous.

However even being aware that different temperaments exist, and are all equally valid, can be a good starting point. As you observe those around you, it’s sometimes easy to spot a few people who are clear examples of their temperaments. The quiet, logical, efficient researcher is likely to be a Rational. The organised hostess with the spotless house and everything ‘just so’ is likely to be a Guardian. If you’re not sure, try understanding how someone thinks: do they care most about competency, belonging, relationships or freedom?

This is particularly important for home educators to understand, since it’s entirely possible to have people of more than one temperament – or even all four – within one family. If a Guardian mother has an Artisan son, for instance, there could be clashes if the mother wants to make the day structured and organised, while the son learns better in fits and starts, caring most about creative freedom. Equally a Rational mother, believing in the value of efficient education to produce competent adults, may become impatient with a Guardian child who wants rules and guidelines, and is happier learning step by step.

Further reading on this site:

Introvert or Extravert?
Personality types
Gifted children and home education
ADD or highly spirited?
Parenting theories
Discipline – what is it?
Are all teenagers horrible?

Further reading on other sites:

Keirsey’s site
Temperament theory