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Slow Steady and Even-Tempered: The Phlegmatic Child

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by Thomas Poplawski

From Renewal, A Journal for Waldorf Education, Spring/Summer 2012

Chris Christie is the popular governor of New Jersey. Christie is affable, fiscally conservative, and known to be a hard and steady worker. Last year, his solid personality and strong presence sparked the public’s interest in him as a presidential candidate for the Republican Party. But Christie is a large, portly man. Some people wondered if he is too corpulent to be president. Their concern was that, since he apparently cannot control his own appetite, how could he convince the American people of the need for fiscal austerity? Governor Christie’s gifts and challenges can be understood with the help of the traditional theory of exhibits a high appreciation for the four temperaments.

 

In previous articles, we have dealt with the melancholic, choleric, and sanguine temperaments. To repeat a key point we have made before, temperament arises from the physical nature of the individual. The ancient Greeks associated the fourth temperament, the phlegmatic, with the thick, viscous body fluid they called phlegm. As is the case with each temperament’s dominant bodily fluid, the phlegm creates qualities that are beloved as well as qualities that are maligned. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, both archetypes of the phlegmatic persuasion, emanate human warmth and jollity. But a phlegmatic person who has let the negative side of the temperament come to the fore can be perceived as lazy and self-indulgent. A clear understanding of this temperament type is helpful in appreciating and supporting the phlegmatic child or adult whom we know.

In the past, a phlegmatic person was easy to identify because of the typical rounded, often plump,
physique—quite distinct from the stocky, muscular choleric, or the slender, tall sanguine. Today, however, widespread obesity has made children (and adults) who are not by nature phlegmatics appear to be phlegmatic and even to have some of the typical phlegmatic traits. In Waldorf schools, where most families are conscious about healthy eating and exercise, obesity is not much of an issue. However, any child or adult who for some reason puts on a substantial amount of weight will develop some phlegmatic traits.

Phlegmatics strive for ease, comfort, and relaxation. They love good food, a comfortable chair by the fire, a beautiful room, and pleasant company. They are skilled at enjoying the good things of life and thus tend to be happy people. Humor and joy come easily to them. The choleric lives for action and doing, the sanguine for beauty, variety, and diversion, and the melancholic’s striving is for perfection and safety. The phlegmatic is content to sit by quietly and to relish the fine pleasures the world has to offer.
 
Phlegmatics typically are thoughtful, reflective people, though not too inward, as can be the case with the melancholic. Phlegmatics are patient and careful and will ruminate before aspirnging into action. They possess a good deal of instinctive equanimity and are emotionally stable and anchored. Rudolf Steiner observed that, of all the temperaments, the phlegmatic has the capacity to be most spiritually gifted. Within this archetype, there is a rich inner life and yet a balanced involvement with the inner and outer worlds.

According to the theory of the temperaments, the phlegmatic is associated with the element of water. This connection with “wateriness” can be seen in his roundish and relatively undefined physical build and in the slow and harmonious way he moves, although he can also be clumsy. His consciousness can be on the watery side as well—dreamy, unfocused, and dominated by an “I can work on it later” attitude that can lead to lassitude and laziness. Easygoing, good-humored, undemanding, and often jolly, the phlegmatic can make a good friend and companion. The phlegmatic’s theme song might be:
  Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,
  Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream ...

As workers, phlegmatics tend to excel. They are the slow, steady, reliable tortoises to the hard-charging, impulsive choleric bulls and the facile but easily distracted sanguine hares. The phlegmatics plod on, steadily and relentlessly; they slog through the tedious and difficult assignments that would cause the other temperaments to give up or get bogged down. And, they are not difficult people. They are usually cheerful and get along well with others. They do not normally assume the leadership role, although sometimes it is given them, especially if they are very bright. Others may not find phlegmatics to be exciting, but they are dependable and solid.

The Good Life
Picture some of the currently popular celebrity chefs, people like Mario Batali and Paul Prud-homme, and you see archetypal examples of the phlegmatic, though these individuals tend to have a choleric streak as well. In general, these are people who like the finer things in life, especially food. They love to taste, smell, savor, and to indulge in the pleasures of the senses.

When a Waldorf class teacher notices that her phlegmatic students are beginning to lag, she will insert into her story a scene with the hero entering a magnificent banquet hail elaborately decorated and filled with many gustatory delights. She describes these wonders spread out on the serving table while the phlegmatic children, suddenly attentive, even entranced, lean forward in their seats, licking their lips. The old saying that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach applies most powerfully to the phlegmatic.

These days, the phlegmatic physique is out of fashion. Yet for centuries, the robust, fleshy, full, phlegmatic Rubenesque figure was most prized. And in many parts of the world, an ample figure (especially in women) is still desirable, being seen as a sign of well-being and affluence. But today in North America and Europe, the thin, waiflike melancholic and the tall, slender sanguine—once looked upon as scrawny and unfortunate—are the standards of beauty. Plump (let alone fat) equals unfashionable, and there is increasing concern for and even criticism of those with excess body weight.

Phlegmatic children often are teased by their peers and have other negative qualities unfairly attributed to them. An otherwise balanced and happy child who can usually slough off minor teasing can be transformed into a nervous and withdrawn child if the negativity of other children goes unchecked. Parents and teachers must be vigilant and proactive in protecting the phlegmatic child from bullying. Well-meaning adults should resist the temptation to encourage the phlegmatic child in too-forceful a way to develop healthy habits with such admonitions as “Eat less!” and “Get more exercise!” Such advice can cause the phlegmatic to develop a negative self-image and to withdraw emotionally.

It should be mentioned that the phlegmatic child can surprise us with atypical behavior. An ordinarily patient phlegmatic, if pushed too far by bullying or by being ignored by adults, can suddenly explode in anger. Similarly, the plodding and humdrum activity level of these children can sometimes give way to a surprising explosion of enthusiasm and initiative. Rudolf Steiner referred to the phlegmatic as “a sleeping choleric.” Though the phlegmatic will soon return to his placid mood and slow, steady pace, adults should pay attention if and when such seismic outbursts occur.


A Question of Balance
A child can easily get stuck in the more negative aspects of his or her native temperament. This entrenchment can interfere with both learning and social development. Thus it is important for parents and teachers to identify a child’s temperament and know how to work with it. Each temperament has a dark side into which the child can be drawn. An informed adult can help a child to manifest his or her temperament in a balanced, healthy manner and to avoid the negative aspects of the temperament. Normally, the phlegmatic is an easy child, as long as we do not have unrealistic expectations.

One danger for the phlegmatic is in becoming overweight or even obese. However, it is not wise to actively restrict how much a child may eat. Attempting to do so can damage one’s relationship with the child and cause long-term emotional problems. A wholesome diet based on whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, fish, and poultry is helpful, as are regular mealtimes. Rich desserts, snack foods, soft drinks, processed foods, and junk foods are best avoided. Don’t give the phlegmatic child low-fat or no-fat food. Children need natural fats and oils for their healthy development. Interestingly, Rudolf Steiner suggested having the phlegmatic child eat oats for breakfast. While today oats are acknowledged as a healthful food (oats lower cholesterol levels), Steiner recommended them because of their high oil content, which provides a fieriness to awaken the child in the morning and motivate her for school.

Another tendency for the phlegmatic child is to become overly sedentary and not get enough physical exercise. Getting the child off the couch where he is reading or away from his computer can be a real challenge. Doing something active with the child, such as going for a walk or playing ball, is a good way to encourage the habit of exercise. Signing the phlegmatic child up for a sports team, dance classes, and other activities can also counter the inherent, somewhat sluggish inclinations of the phlegmatic child.

The commitment of parents and other adults and their strong will (lovingly exercised) are crucial here. But the energy and enthusiasm of other (non-phlegmatic) children can awaken an interest in physical activity and socializing in the phlegmatic child. This carrot can be more effective than the adult’s unilateral stick in getting the phlegmatic child moving. Parents and teachers can work together to get other children to include the hesitant or even overly shy phlegmatic child in their interests. Adults not of the phlegmatic temperament themselves need to practice patience with the phlegmatic child. They should not judge the amount of physical activity accomplished by a phlegmatic child and the speed with which it is accomplished by their own standards. Here the phlegmatic adult has an advantage.

As we get older, our striving to moderate our own temperament and minimize its extreme characteristics becomes a natural process. This usually involves the development of a secondary temperament. The perceptive adult can see this tendency manifesting even in the young child. Typically the introverted types (phlegmatic and melancholic) develop a more extroverted secondary temperament (choleric or sanguine), and vice versa. The phlegmatic child thus develops a sanguine or choleric secondary temperament. The more active and forceful phlegmatic has obviously taken on choleric characteristics. And the easygoing but jolly and fun-loving person borrows more traits from the sanguine side. Interestingly, research has shown that even in their later choice of spouses and partners, the temperaments strive for balance. The more extreme temperaments—the overly inward melancholic and the overly outward and active choleric—tend to choose their opposite. Hence, choleric-melancholic couples are quite common. The more balanced phlegmatic tends to pair up with another phlegmatic, and the sanguine likewise seeks one of its own.

The phlegmatic temperament, like each of the others, is neither a curse nor a blessing, but rather a bit of each. In raising a phlegmatic child, we need to be conscious of both the gifts and challenges and help the child to a move toward balance. But we should “take it easy” and learn from the phlegmatic that, after all, "... life is but a dream ... ” o


THOMAS POPLAWSKI, Renewal’s staff writer, is a trained eurythmist, a psychotherapist working for the Massachusetts State Department of Family Services, and a Waldorf father and husband. His wife, Valerie, is a kindergarten teacher at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, Massachusetts, and his two sons are graduates of that school.

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