Nicole Von Wilczur ’18 Researches the Parental Roots of Human Temperament
This summer, Nicole Von Wilczur ’18 had an ideal harmony of on-campus jobs. She split her week between helping Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam with his research on toddler temperament, and working at the Children’s Center where she often had to to moderate the temperaments of toddlers.
Temperament is, most basically, “all of the intrinsic characteristics of personality,” Von Wilczur explained. It includes such attributes as the propensity to be introverted or extroverted, and is “something that stays with you basically from the time you’re born until you’re an adult,” she added.
Temperament is actually one of the most stable aspects of personality, and, for the most part, you can observe an individual’s temperament as a toddler and expect similar behavior when that same child is 16 or 30. However, Putnam believes that while temperament is certainly inherent and genetic, it is also influenced by parenting style and how parents nurture and raise their children. Temperament does differ culturally, which might have a lot to do with cross-cultural differences in parenting styles.
Although temperament is foundational to our personalities, it is a relatively under-studied part of psychology, according to Von Wilczur.
Von Wilczur’s research with Putnam explores how parenting styles affect toddler temperament. “We’re looking at whether different parenting styles lead to differences in child’s temperament, and how that differs across the nation and how that differs across the world,” she said. With collaborators ranging from Washington state to Germany, the research will comprise of a cross-cultural analysis.
A big part of Von Wilczur’s research this summer was searching for subjects in the surrounding area. She discovered that the biweekly Brunswick Farmer’s Market was a propitious place to find subjects. “We would bring little play sets — we had a slide and a sandbox — and we would bring it over to the Brunswick mall,” she described. Kids would come over and play in the sets, and Von Wilczur and her research partners, Carly Lappas ’17 and Hannah Broos ’17, would ask the parents to fill out a survey about their child and their parenting style.
Nearly half of those who responded to surveys were then willing to allow Putnam and his research assistants into their homes for an observation of their parenting.
Doing this research has changed the way Von Wilczur interprets parent’s behavior when they pick their kids up at the Children’s Center. “Whether they [the parents] are stern, or their child’s throwing a tantrum and they’re kind of standing back and letting them do it,” Von Wilczur said she’s more cognizant of connecting this parental behavior to the temperament of the children. Although the evidence is anecdotal, in the Children’s Center she said she’s observed that the more relaxed the parent, the more unruly the children.
As the summer comes to a close, Von Wilczur said her team has finished collecting surveys and has begun to analyze results and compare them with the results of similar experiments around the world. The hope is that this kind of research can give us a “greater understanding of the role that geographic region and related variables play in influencing differences in infant, child and adult temperament…We are hopeful that the results will be of interest not only to developmental psychologists, but scholars in personality and sociology as well,” said Von Wilczur. In that way, Von Wilczur adds, she thinks this research can “help parents figure out how they would like to change their behavior or not…to change their child’s behavior.”
Von Wilczur has known for a while that she wants to work with kids in the future, and both of her summer jobs have further solidified that aim. While she is still deciding between a psychology or a neuroscience major, “I really want to look at mental health and behavior,” in children, she said. For her, this summer was “the perfect opportunity to get started with that [research] and see what my future could look like,” she said.