Temperaments - Helpful Tool or Dangerous Stereotype?

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In a recent handwork teacher training weekend discussion, we delved into the temperaments. Each small group was assigned a reading, and their assignment was to present – i.e., to teach everyone else – about the four temperaments. It was astonishing and exciting to see all the ways that emerged – beautiful paintings; a kindergarten puppet show; a paper marionette puppet show; 4 people wearing different hats (literally) to personify the different temperaments; a skit with one person speaking the ‘inner voice’ of the teacher (along the lines “oh no, what now?”), and another taking on the ‘outer’ voice mustering all the self-control and patience she could; ……. and so much more.


It was fun, informative, memorable, and extremely well received. And then came the questions, concerns, serious doubts and honest criticism. Are these stereotypes? Are they outmoded? Are these four aspects of a human being too limited? Have we learned nothing about human nature in these 100 years? Are we pigeon-holing and limiting our perception to these four ‘windows’ into children (and ourselves and each other)?


At Waldorf Handwork Educators, we welcome these probing and uncomfortable questions when based on a fundamental understanding of Steiner’s work. We acknowledge the high value of his insights and teaching, while also recognizing the need for renewal in many areas, 100 years from the founding of the first Waldorf school.


Here are some of the shared thoughts and reflections, in our students’ own words, but edited to maintain personal anonymity. We would like to know what you think.


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In its current form, I think it’s arguable the temperaments cause more harm in schools than good. For newer teachers, parents, families, administrators, etc., the language is off putting and used as kind of a shorthand in discussing what should be a complex individual

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The temperaments classification does not reflect the complexity of the world’s children today. We are, in fact, in the midst of an evolution of consciousness as evidenced by so many global events and movements in the present day. Waldorf education is not immune to these movements, and should in fact evolve to find its place within all this change and globalism. If the world our children are living in is changing, then we too must change to meet those children. Recent global events are a reminder that these are complex and complicated times, where labels and a rush to judgment no longer serve us. This is just as true inside the classroom as it is out in the streets.

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While the idea of temperaments may be helpful as a start, a gateway, I would advocate more modern day interpretations of them with a wider view of children around the world. A recognition that the archetypes were based on observation of white European children and that is not inclusive enough.

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Although I recognize the kernels of truth in the temperaments, I have always been concerned about the labeling and otherizing aspects of this lens. Giving children a label disrupts our ability to see the child in front of us in the moment. Labels are really comparisons; and comparisons are really judgements. If we are judging children, we are not taking responsibility for the environment and classroom situations we create and maintain.

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. . . thoughts that have been nagging at me for some time -- the stereotype that physical aspects of the body somehow relate to a person’s temperament, something to which Steiner frequently makes reference. I recognize in myself the tendency, when reading Steiner, to brush over the things that I think are no longer relevant, so that I don’t become overly turned off by them. I see now the need to address these issues head on so that they are brought out in the open and discussed among faculty and colleagues as I think this is to the benefit of all.

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The temperaments hold the same deep problems that are evident in other parts of Waldorf education. The deep problems of tokenism, othering, colonization, white privilege, fatphobia, ableism, xenophobia, gendered stereotypes, and a complete lack of neurodiversity are nestled amongst profound teachings. If we, as Waldorf Educators, seek to move forward in our thinking and teaching, if we are to push forward to be inclusive to all, if we are to help break down systemic systems of oppression, we have to call them out when we see them. Stereotypes persist because there is always a piece of the truth to perpetuate the stereotype.

I’ve heard many say that we should have an updated version, but I’d like to push back at that a little and ask why? For what reason do you need the temperaments? If we’re looking at it through a lens of getting to know the children on a more deep and complete level, we should be looking far beyond their physical attributes, or even their dominant personality traits if we’re to give them the real attention they deserve. If you’re using them to inform your lesson planning, there are better ways of creating multi-faceted lessons that appeal to and inspire all learners.

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The child of course may only exhibit the behavior I am seeing when I am in class with them and behave quite differently elsewhere. However, this is where talking with colleagues and doing Child Studies, in which all faculty share their observations, can bring together a fuller picture of the child.

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Teachers need to pay attention to their own temperaments and be sure to continue to work on themselves. [We must remember] to use the temperaments to draw out the children’s special gifts and talents and to embrace the differences among us.

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I can see that by understanding their temperament tendencies I can become more sensitive as to how I can be with [my adult students and my family]. This helps to create a positive social environment and many great opportunities for all of us to shine and be accepted for who we are.

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I truly do see the temperaments as a window pane through which to observe children. It doesn’t define a child or adult in totality. Rather, it gives me one more tool in my tool box in which to try and fully see, and appreciate, them.

. . . it’s imperative to always be open minded, consider all perspectives, and accept Steiner’s invitation to try out what he brings forward and decide for ourselves if there is truth and value for ourselves in what he shares.

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I don’t think that when modernization is needed that we need to throw out the whole system . . . we all can use a good tool to be able to see the souls of people rather than all the other pieces that can be distracting. And, the more distracting those other pieces are, the more we need a tool to get past them,

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Regardless of the current standing of temperament theory, I think it is fascinating that we as human beings have always pursued making sense of ourselves and each other in a deeper and more meaningful way. That is the main takeaway for me that we continue to want to understand each other.

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Perhaps even “seminal” writings about temperament need to be abandoned or at least prefaced with a large content warning, lest another generation of Waldorf teachers be indoctrinated in a way that may alienate prospective families from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

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What do you think? We welcome your feedback.





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