The Four Temperaments: Understanding the Waldorf Early Childhood Approach

As a parent of a young child, I recently returned to the four temperaments and found the numerous articles and blog posts on them confusing, if not misleading. I am writing this to share with you some of my observations based on my perceptions and understanding.

Rudolf Steiner developed an approach to education that was based upon the unique blossoming of the inner and outer life of the individual in seven-year cycles. For early childhood, he placed importance on the awareness of temperaments (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic) in the context of his larger world view.

To clarify, there are not four types of children within the temperaments, but in truth a unique temperament for every individual. Hence, when one contemplates temperaments in a child, one must appreciate that the four temperaments are actually ‘forces’ that interact with other personality attributes and social influences in a singular fashion as well as the forces within the various temperaments. (Nevertheless, I sometimes refer here to a temperament as a type for facility of writing, e.g. I write, ‘phlegmatic’ instead of the more cumbersome, ‘a child with dominant phlegmatic tendencies overriding and interacting with the other three.’) Within each temperament there is, in turn, much variation, further complicating one’s perceptions. One temperament always dominates, however ‘informed’ and influenced it is by the presence of the other three.

To begin, it might help to feel or imagine one’s way into the temperaments by how they reflect the larger stages of life’s journey. The sanguine is the temperament of youth; the choleric, of the second quarter; the melancholic, the third quarter; and phlegmatic, the fourth and final phase. Youth, the sanguine period, might be characterized by strong emotions, openness to experiences and strong likes and dislikes; the second stage of life (choleric) might be felt as period in which one’s ego turns to how it will transform the world; the third quarter (melancholic) is often one of shifting reflections over life and a deeper awareness of its transiency; and finally, the last quarter of life (phlegmatic) might be felt as one in which feelings ‘separate’ from oneself and appear almost as to arise before one’s being for contemplation and immersion, as does memory in its nearness and farness. If we feel these stages of life deeply, we can imagine better how our child’s temperament might shape their early personality.

The choleric child has a strong presence of ‘me-ness,’ of being an energy-centered ego or body that draws others to it. The sanguine, on the other hand, reacts emotionally to experiences of the world. Since the period of childhood is most similar to sanguinity, often the sanguine child is exuberant and content. The melancholic child seems burdened by experience and the passage of things without a mature awareness as to what this actually constitutes; it may translate to aggression or even dissatisfaction. Finally, the phlegmatic force in a child is one that draws them into deep immersion in activities and other children’s doings.

As another imaginative exercise, sometimes these four temperaments are characterized by elements: fire (choleric), air (sanguine), water (phlegmatic) and earth (melancholic). Hence one might feel an ‘earthy’ element to their child and identify melancholic tendencies. However, I suspect that many parents will find that their child is ‘fiery’ despite what their temperament might actually be.

Waldorf teachers are trained to feel their way into the inner tendencies of a child so as to be able to nurture the child’s growth in a positive fashion. If not, the unique temperamental tendencies of a child may be misunderstood, combatted and judged from some projected cultural behavioral expectation. For example, a choleric child in mainstream culture may appear as having Attention Deficit Disorder. (This does not mean that every child with ADD has a choleric temperament.) In the Waldorf approach, the choleric child learns to respect the consistent rhythmic authority of the teacher. The child might be paired with another strongly choleric child so that the two learn from each other by a form of ‘resistance awareness.’ The phlegmatic child may appear to be listless and detached, and perhaps lack the ability to engage in ‘normal’ transitions due to their tendency to immerse themselves in their given activity. A child with phlegmatic tendencies will sometimes exhibit explosive anger when this is disrupted, like a little sloth lashing out with unexpected hooked claws. In the Waldorf approach, phlegmatics are sometimes paired with each other so that their mirroring tendencies awaken the energies to engage beyond them. Teachers share their sense of having endured trials with melancholics, winning the child’s mutual identification and admiration. (I note here that a melancholic might be misdiagnosed as being depressed, although, again, a depressed child is not necessarily melancholic in temperament.) Sanguines, in general, require the calm, steady interiority from their teacher’s meditative presence.

From ages seven to fourteen, the presence and power of the four temperaments recede to other shaping forces that shift into the foreground. Even though their early dominant influence retracts, they may be sensed in us adults as a residual presence.

For example:
1) choleric: Oprah Winfrey, Jason Statham, Hillary Clinton, Shakira
2) sanguine: Ursula K. LeGuin, Pope Francis, Yo-Yo Ma, Tom Cruise
3) phlegmatic: Emma Thompson, Owen Wilson, David Letterman, Dalai Lama
4) melancholic: Ang Lee, Dolores O’Riordan, Brad Pitt, James Dean, Tina Fey

If you are curious what your child’s temperament might be and how it may help you in understanding your child, email me.
— Alton C. Frabetti, Ph.D.

Alton C. Frabetti, Ph.D. is a Waldorf School at Moraine Farm parent. He lived in Italy for ten years studying Rudolph Steiner and Massimo Scaligero and founded an art gallery. Upon his return to the United States he completed an MA in philosophy and an MFA in sculpture at Stony Brook University and recently completed a Ph.D. in the Humanities from the University of Louisville in Aesthetics and Creativity.

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