Home Office: Can Myers-Briggs testing make us better parents?

If parenthood is a career, I sometimes suspect I’m in the wrong line of business.

I despise schedules and organized activities, the lifeline of the modern mom’s existence.

I love my two boys – Jake and Luke – dearly, but there are too many days, I am sad to confess, when the combination of their loud voices, high energy levels and non-stop needs sets my nerves aflame. I yell. I threaten. I know this is not the best way to deal with two children with the combined age of ten. But what I understand intellectually is different from how I sometimes – okay, often – behave when the constant cries of “Mommy!” become too much.

Moreover, I suspect there are basic personality conflicts adding to my tension level. Jake, seven, a charming and handsome future criminal defense attorney, is incapable of taking no for an answer. Luke, almost four, my future comedian, is in constant movement and performs for the crowd when he doesn’t feel he is getting his share of attention – which is almost all the time. Jake recently asked if Luke came with an off switch. He said the constant noise wore on him. I understood. Different as they are, neither child understands the virtues of silence. My husband once drew stares in a neighborhood store when he yelled at the boys, “Stop using your words!”

As for my husband and myself, let’s just say opposites attract:until they have children.

So when I heard about a parenting therapy group based on the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the famed personality test, I was on it. If motherhood is a lifetime job, I figured, maybe an exam whose prominent use is to offer people employment guidance could help me in a way Dr. Spock had not. I signed up for a series of classes offered by Elizabeth Campbell, a former career counselor who now runs MB parenting groups out of her suburban New York home.

Unlike other personality assessment systems, Myers-Briggs emphasizes character strengths, not weaknesses. (You’re not an anti-social dweeb, you simply function best with copious amounts of time to yourself.). More than two million people take it annually in settings ranging from church groups to career counseling centers. Almost 90% of the companies in the Fortune 100 are believed to utilize either it or one of its variants (such as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter) for use in everything from hiring decisions to teaching corporate management techniques.

Inspired by Carl Jung’s theory of personality, the Myers-Briggs test places takers into one of sixteen behavior profiles, based on answers to questions about how we interact with others (Extroversion and Introversion), prefer to deal with facts or ideas, (Sensing or iNtuition), make decisions based on logic or emotion (Thinking or Feeling) and whether we are orderly or spontaneous in our actions and thought (Judging or Perceiving.) Traits are known by their first letters. Your profile is expressed as a combination of the four: George W. Bush, for example, is widely thought to be either an ESTP or ESTJ.

Janet Penley, the former marketing and advertising executive who pioneered Myers-Briggs use for parents in the late 1980s, believes many maternal difficulties lie in the gap between societal expectations and personal temperament. Like me, she stumbled onto personality testing when she was searching for ways to lessen her irritability around her children.

“I was preparing a birthday party for my six-year-old son when he came and messed up the plate and napkin settings,” she recalled. “I shrieked at him.”

She now calls that shriek her “aha moment.”

Penley found the Myers-Briggs personality scheme so effective a tool for managing her emotions, energy and time, she was soon adapting the test for mom’s groups, developing specific diagnostic questions for parents, many of which are in her recently published book, Motherstyles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths.

When I take the exam Campbell mails me and the test in Penley’s book, both categorize me as an INTP – Introvert, Intuitive, Thinker and Perceiver. Over the next several days, I spend hours Googling my type online, where there is a seemingly infinite amount of information about it and the other fifteen types. According to our profiles, INTPs need significant time alone and often are compulsive readers. We’re highly logical and analytical but (surprise!) hate structure and anything resembling advance planning. We love research. However, we are not particularly adept at what are generally referred to as “people skills” and “organizational abilities.” We are notoriously tactless, nitpick excessively and are congenitally incapable of taking “no” for an answer. I experience my “aha” moment before I even sign off. This is me. When, for example, I research children’s party sites for so long I can’t even book a date within two weeks of Jake’s birthday even though I can reel off facts about every party locale within 10 miles of my home, I’m demonstrating classic INTP qualities. And the fact that I’ve been known to read the label on a jar of tomato sauce if nothing else is around – while my children are screaming at me for their dinner? Ditto.

As happy as my explorations made me, personality testing has its critics, who argue the tests are ridiculous. Hocus pocus. Unscientific. Upwards of forty percent of those taking the exams will get a different result the next time they answer the questions, says Annie Murphy Paul, the author of The Cult of Personality Testing. The self-reporting mechanism of Myers-Briggs and similar tests is exactly what make them so dubious – and so attractive. “Personality tests work by making statements that people agree with,” Paul notes. “Who doesn’t want to hear about ourselves?”

A psychologist friend, hearing about my interest, was equally skeptical. “You might as well go read your horoscope,” she said.

I didn’t mention I already do. Daily.

I excitedly make plans to attend my first Myers-Briggs moms group. I want to share my “aha” moment with other mothers to see if they too have experienced MB-induced epiphanies.

At our first meeting, Campbell, our facilitator, is encouraging. “Personality is a hidden diversity. The family is the first multicultural unit we are in,” she says. Sounds good to me. I’m finally a fan of political correctness.

“We need to accept ourselves so we can relax with our children,” says one of the other moms.

We’re not supposed to think about personality in a negative way. Yet I can’t help it. It doesn’t take much in the way of analytical skills to realize INTPs are not the most natural nurturers. If you prize rational discourse, little ones, even your own, are probably not your favorite conversational companions.

According to Penley’s book, we INTPs do have our strengths as mothers. We’re great at answering young children’s “why” questions – the non-stop queries that tend to send other parental types to bedlam and back. We tend to view mistakes as learning experiences. But our downsides are significant, no matter what she says, starting with a tendency to detach and retreat physically and emotionally from family life when the noise and chaos becomes too much. Nonetheless, we are often recalled by our children as exceptionally calm parents and tolerant moms. We INTPs are often recalled by our children as exceptionally calm parents.

As I am reading Penley’s book, a skirmish over the television in the next room is rapidly escalating into a full-fledged battle. “SpongeBob!” shrieks Jake. Luke hops off the couch and topples a child-sized wheelbarrow, sending Mega Bloks flying while repeating at the top of his very loud voice, “Sesame Street!” He knocks over his toy kitchen for emphasis. “Stop it,” I scream after a moment of trying to placate them goes nowhere. “Noggin or nothing!”

“No fair,” yells Jake. “We’re always watching Luke shows!”

“Turn the volume down now or I’m turning off the TV,” I respond, loudly. “For a week!”

More shrieks. I get them settled – finally – and dash back to my study to consult Penley’s book again, which says INTP mothers – like moms in general – need downtime. Otherwise, the demands of motherhood might get to be too much. A mother I know refers to this moment as the “Getting the heck out of there before I slug somebody” moment. For now I cling to Penley’s terminology. I don’t need to deal with my boys current dispute at all, I tell myself. I need some downtime. I stroll into my bedroom and read a book, deliberately ignoring Penley’s cautionary note that INTP moms find children’s noise so exhausting, they sometimes check-out both emotionally and physically.

Ten minutes later, I reappear. SpongeBob is back on but Luke is playing with a truck and the only voice in the room is coming from a manic, underwater spore. I know my authority has been flouted, but I decide to let it go. I’d like to be remembered as a calm mother.

At my next group meeting, the discussion turns to marital relations. Almost all the women report conflict with their spouses over childrearing issues, and I am no different. Messy vs. neat is a popular one. For example, my husband and I routinely battle over bath time. In his view, children need to be scrubbed in the tub, and they shouldn’t have time to make much of a flood. I, on the other hand, will let them splash for an hour, then throw down a few towels to clean up (see, we INTPs are tolerant). My husband is an INFJ. We’re the Myers-Briggs equivalent of an interracial couple.

My husband, I decide, is a classic INFJ – a Feeler and Judger concerned about the feelings of others and comfortable following schedules and imposing structure. On bad days, I’ve been known to call him anal-retentive, but now I know the truth. We’re the Myers-Briggs equivalent of an interracial couple.

There is only one thing to be done. I decide that we need to incorporate our personality differences into childrearing. Sitting in Campbell’s living room, I suddenly realize I am snapping at the children at bath time because I don’t want to argue with my husband. New rule: whoever is in charge of the bath that night gets to make the decisions.

This gambit works. No bath-related disputes until the night when I’m in charge and my laissez-faire bathing policy results in an inch of standing water on the tile floor. Generally, however, everyone in my house gets along better over the next few weeks. This is not surprising, says Marin County psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, about how pressurized upper middle class parenting styles are inadvertently hurting their kids. “A lot of marital conflict is embedded in different ways of processing information.”

In fact, Levine is not as critical of Myers-Briggs as many in her profession. “It absolutely talks about how we get our energy, information and come to conclusions and deal with the world around us,” she says. While she admits it’s helpful with marriage, she’s less sanguine about children. “To say that it is useful for parenting is pseudo-science,” she notes. And she is absolutely adamant that I not try to figure out my children’s types. “The job of a parent is to respond to a child right in front of them. Pigeonholing kids is going down the wrong path.”

And that’s exactly the path we take at our next meeting. Maybe some of the conflict at home is caused by the fact that neither Jake or myself – INTPs both – are willing to cry uncle?Using excerpts from the book Nuture by Nature: Understand Your Child’s Personality Type – and Become a Better Parent by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, we’re encouraged to think about our children’s temperaments and guess at their types in hopes of improving our relations with them.

Campbell issues a few caveats. Children do change, and their overall personalities do not fully emerge until pre-adolescence. Given their rapid development, new personality aspects can appear seemingly overnight. No mother should relate to a child as a type – they are an individual first and foremost.

Reading the book leaves me a bit doubtful. Are there really types of children who enjoy jumping in mud puddles and playing video games more than others? I decide to try and type Jake as an exercise. We are very similar, an observation that my mother has made numerous times when she has witnessed us debating a point. And when I look up INTPs in the Tieger book, I have to laugh. “Question Authority,” is the headline, followed by a parent saying, “I’ve never won an argument with her. She’s raised the act of hairsplitting to an art form.”

I’m excited to discover that Michael Gurian, the renowned parenting writer, is a Myers-Briggs fan, something he explores in his upcoming book Nurture by Nature. “Children have a core nature,” he tells me.

“If you’re argumentative, and your son is argumentative, he likely comes by your nature genetically,” Gurian continues, adding “Personality conflicts are more likely between people who are alike.”

Maybe some of the conflict at home is caused by the fact that neither Jake or myself – INTPs both – are willing to cry uncle?

I speak to Campbell by phone for our final session. She suggests giving Jake choices within boundaries to reduce conflict – a trick, she says, to let INTP types think they are in control. This strikes me as common sense for just about any kid, yet I am not doing it. So I give it a try.

At dinner the next night, when Jake decides to dump an entire bottle of his beloved ketchup on his hamburger, I don’t shout, “no!” in an absolute panic, thinking of a rushed trip to the supermarket after the kids go to bed.

Instead, I calmly say, “If you put the entire bottle on your burger, you won’t have it for your chicken tomorrow night. It’s your choice.”

Jake stops immediately. Victory. But not for long. Within a few weeks, Jake begins to tell me he doesn’t like the choices offered him.

Did Myers-Briggs work? Well, it left me more accepting of my children’s and husband’s temperaments. I try not to fight who they are as people. That’s left me calmer, and more accepting of their foibles, for good or ill. I don’t yell or lose my temper quite as much. A few of the other moms from my group say similar things.

“I think awareness of personality is half the battle,” said Susan Wei, a fellow mom from the group who admitted she realized she was harder on her daughter than her son because they shared a perceiver’s temperament. “But you’ll have to ask me ten years from now whether it has changed anything.”

As for me, if my children remember me one day, to quote Penley, as “a model of patience, kindness, and fairness,” I’ll consider it a success. In the meantime, I am now a firm believer in “getting the heck out of there.” We INTPs need our downtime, after all.

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