Understanding the ‘Goodness-of-Fit’ Theory Can Help You Be a Better Parent

Understanding the ‘Goodness-of-Fit’ Theory Can Help You Be a Better Parent
Photo: MShev, Shutterstock

It’s a cliché to say very child is different, but it’s unquestionably true that different kids need different types or support and will thrive in different environments. A child with a laidback temperament might thrive in a traditional classroom setting, while one who is full of energy might be disruptive, and one struggling with social anxiety might find it all overwhelming.

As it turns out, the interaction between a child’s temperament and their environment (whether at school or at home) plays an important role in shaping how they grow up. Child development experts call this the “goodness-of-fit” theory: a child who is well-suited to their environment will be able to deal with the demands and expectations it places on them. A poor fit can mean a child who is stressed out, and possibly acting out.

Your child’s temperament interacts with their environment

Along with their ability to regulate their emotions, a child’s natural temperament affects how they react to a given situation. Temperament includes traits such as their activity levels, their level of distractibility, how adaptable they are to new situations, as well as their sensitivity levels and overall mood.

When the goodness-of-fit theory was first introduced in the 1970’s, it focused primarily on the interactions between parents and their children: Were the expectations and demands a parent placed on a child a match for that child’s temperament? But today, the same considerations are being given to other areas of a child’s life, including the classroom. “Now, we also think a lot about [their] environment, and making sure it is a good fit,” said Melissa Goldberg-Mintz, a child psychologist and founder of Secure Base Psychology, PLLC.

Some children will struggle more in certain types of environments

The right environment for one child may end up being the worst possible environment for another. A child with a lot of energy might do really well in an environment in which they are allowed to be active, but struggle in a quiet, sedate setting. A child with social anxiety might struggle a lot more in an environment where they are regularly expected to interact with a lot of people, but thrive in a smaller setting. Meanwhile, a laidback child might find themselves overwhelmed by a high-paced, intense environment.

“The key for parents is to meet your child where they are at, and to accept your child for who they are,” Goldberg-Mintz.

Often, the key to making sure there is a good fit between your child and their environment is making sure the child feels accepted and understood. This might seem difficult if your child’s temperament is very different from your own — for example, if you are very social and they are very shy — but the key is really just understanding what environment and what types of interactions are the best fit for the child rather than pushing your own expectations onto them. You may not fully understand what your child is going through, but you can do your best to accept them and support them as they are. “It’s about the flexibility of a parent meeting their kid where they are, and finding a way to make sure their needs are being met,” Goldberg-Mintz said.

What to do if the environment is a bad fit

In her practice, Goldberg-Mintz meets a lot of parents who feel a lot of pressure to get their child to conform with societal and academic expectations, some of which aren’t always a good fit with their child’s temperament.

This could take the form of feeling the need to push their children to be more social, to take up additional extracurriculars, or trying to get them to sit still in class. Even for the most well-meaning of parents, this can translate to putting pressure of their kids that will only worsen their struggles, as the real issue may be that they are a poor fit for, say, their particular classroom environment.

Although encouraging your child to get out of their comfort zone can be a valuable experience, Goldberg-Mintz recommends prioritising acceptance and understanding first.

“If your child feels accepted by you, then it’s going to be easier for them to try something new,” she said. “If they feel a ton of pressure [from you] it’s not going to feel good for them. The more they feel supported and the more they feel accepted, the easier it is going to be for them.”

Even if a child is in a tough situation, one that they can’t get out of, a parent’s support and understanding can still go a long way toward helping them cope. “If a child feels they are being seen and understood, this goes a long way toward making the burden a little easier to carry,” Goldberg-Mintz said.

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