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Compliant or Defiant Child

Recognising and nurturing a child's unique personality without letting labels influence the parenting approach.

Children have a distinct personality, which falls broadly either into a Compliant or Defiant Child category. My wife and I have been blessed with one compliant and one defiant child. The difference or behaviour between a compliant or defiant child can be startling, and presents all parents with lots of sleepless nights.

All kids are unique and, as such, how they perceive and interact with others can be significantly different. What we try to remember always is that all kids have different talents that develop as they grow. We try our best never to parent by treating both kids in obviously distinct ways, as we worry that labelling them as either compliant or defiant in our minds will only affect how we interact with them; however, this is not an easy task.

Any bias towards labelling a child as either compliant or defiant can have a profound effect on that child. The compliant child will grow up never experiencing the harsh realities of life, and the defiant child grows up with dented self-confidence. A good definition of these personality types was given by The UCB Word For Today:

The Compliant Child: those who sleep through the night from the second week of life. They coo at their grandparents, and smile while their nappies are being changed. They are never sick on the way to the grocery store or the doctor’s surgery. During later childhood they love to keep their rooms clean, and they do their homework brilliantly without being asked.

The Defiant Child: ”strong-willed kids”. They get their mother’s attention long before birth because they scratch their initials on the walls (of the womb) and kick like crazy. They enter the world yelling about the temperature in the delivery room, and complaining about the incompetence of the nursing staff. From about eighteen months forward, they want to run things and tell everybody what to do. Their favourite word is no!

It is interesting that the descriptions above paint a gloom image of a defiant child, however, this is not the case. We simply see it as a means of figuring out how we can bring out the best qualities in our defiant child, no matter how much of a hard task it is. And on the opposite end, to ensure that our compliant child does not float (accompanied with a circling halo) into the clouds believing butter cannot melt in their mouth.

Compliant or Defiant Child in Defiant Child Mode

Whilst it may be easy for many parents to run away from their very own contribution towards their child’s behaviour, preliminary investigations have revealed some evidence suggesting that genetic influences may be at work in our kids. Behavioural genetics research indicates that genetic factors play a role in individual differences in children’s temperaments.

The word “temperament” is brandished around in everyday speech, however, this is a complex word that has taken the greatest minds years to define and it’s continually being redefined. To date, most attempts to define temperament draws parallels to the definition given in 1987 by a prominent cognitive psychologist, Robert McCall. McCall created a definition of temperament that included elements common to the four main theories of temperament at the time. According to McCall

Temperament consists of relatively consistent, basic dispositions inherent in the person that underlie and modulate the expression of activity, reactivity, emotionality, and sociability. Major elements of temperament are present early in life, and those elements are likely to be strongly influenced by biological factors. As development proceeds, the expression of temperament increasingly becomes more influenced by experience and context.

Considering the complexity of McCall’s definition, it may be easier to view the definition as three elements common to all temperament characteristics:

  1. The individual differences are present at birth
  2. The differences are inherent in the person
  3. The differences are stable across development

For all parents or guardians, understanding  or being aware of a child’s temperament can only serve to improve relationships that exist reciprocally – we all have innate styles that can be complex. Researchers have taken the blog topic further and divided children’s temperament generally into three temperament types:

  • Easy or flexible children tend to be happy, regular in sleeping and eating habits, adaptable, calm, and not easily upset.
  • Active or feisty children may be fussy, irregular in feeding and sleeping habits, fearful of new people and situations, easily upset by noise and stimulation, and intense in their reactions.
  • Slow to warm or cautious children may be less active or tend to be fussy, and may withdraw or react negatively to new situations; but over time they may become more positive with repeated exposure to a new person, object, or situation.

Whilst not all children’s temperaments fall effortlessly into one of the three types outlined above, parents or guardians can somehow manipulate the circumstances to nurture a child to showcase the development of their natural strengths and weaknesses. And for a reflective parent or guardian this may help one to understand their own strengths and limitations through the temperament types identified.

No two kids are the same; even if they find themselves in either the compliant or defiant child category, a great deal of adaptation is required. Whilst my wife and I do not have all the answers, we have established clear boundaries for both our kids and try in a loving nature to be understanding within them. We often do not live up to the level of fairness we wish to apply for both kids and find ourselves being short with our so-called defiant child. Raising kids is not an easy task, which is made worse by our own chest of complex junk built up over our lifetime!


  • Allard, Lindsey T. & HunterChild Amy, “What Works Brief Series: Understanding Temperament in Infant and Toddlers”, Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning [Online] [Accessed 25th October 2016]
  • Fenstermacher, S.K. & Saudino, K.J., (2006) “Understanding Individual Differences in Young Children’s Imitative Behaviour”, Developmental Review 26, 346–364
  • Goldsmith, H.H., Buss, A.H., Plomin, R., Rothbart, M.K., Thomas, A., Chess, S., Robert, A.H., McCall, R.B., (1987) “Roundtable: What Is Temperament? Four Approaches”, Child Development 58 (2), 505-529
  • Rowe, D.C. & Plomin, R., (1977) “Temperament in Early Childhood”, Journal of Personality Assessment,Vol. 41 (2)
  • Saudino, K.J. & Micalizzi, L., (2015) “Emerging Trends in Behavioural Genetic Studies of Child Temperament”, Child Development Perspectives, Vol 9 (3) 144-148
  • Shiner, R.L., Buss, K.A., McClowry, S.G., Putnam, S.P., Saudino, K.J. and Zentner, M., (2012) “What Is Temperament Now? Assessing Progress in Temperament Research on the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Goldsmith et al. (1987)”, Child Development Perspectives, Vol 6 (4), 436-444
  • The UCB Word For Today, (20 June 2016) “Raising Compliant and Defiant Children (1)” [Accessed 25th October 2016]
  • The UCB Word For Today, (21 June 2016) “Raising Compliant and Defiant Children (2)” [Accessed 26th October 2016]


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