Motivating your phlegmatic child (and yourself?)

posted in: Homeschool & Parenting | 18
File:Thomas Couture - Daydreams - Walters 3744.jpg
Daydreams by Thomas Couture (Wikimedia Commons). Can a phlegmatic be motivated to work hard?

After I wrote a post with tips for your choleric child, a readers asked if I would write one for phlegmatics as well. I’ve been thinking hard about how to motivate phlegmatics, as I work with C, age 8, who is phlegmatic/sanguine. Since I am phlegmatic/melancholic, I have also looked closely at what works for me.

In reading Fr. Conrad Hock’s book about the four temperaments, I was disappointed by his treatment of phlegmatics. He takes about two pages with each of the other three temperaments, but his main section about phlegmatics says only this:

The training of phlegmatic children is very difficult, because external influence has little effect upon them and internal personal motives are lacking. It is necessary to explain everything most minutely to them, and repeat it again and again, so that at least some impression may be made to last, and to accustom them by patience and charity to follow strictly a well-planned rule of life. The application of corporal punishment is less dangerous in the education of phlegmatic children; it is much more beneficial to them than to other children, especially to those of choleric or melancholic temperament.”

Not very encouraging for parents, is it?

I found similar dismissals of phlegmatics in online discussion by members of the Waldorf School, who rely greatly on temperaments in their teaching methods.

I have to wonder: was Fr. Hock a choleric? Is that we he gives phlegmatics short shrift? Art and Lorraine Bennett are much more sympathetic and helpful. If you haven’t read their book The Temperament God Gave You, I highly recommend it (although I think it does have some flaws).

Here are some things I have learned about motivating the phlegmatic.

The phlegmatic loves to have fun

Unlike the serious melancholic, the phlegmatic loves to spend time doing trivial things, as long as he enjoys them.

He loves games of chance. Many phlegmatics will use mental energy to play strategy games. C enjoys Stratego and Settlers of Cataan. I like Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and sudoku, but I don’t enjoy games such as Stratego or chess enough to expend the mental energy they demand.

Even as an adult, the phlegmatic desires lots of free time. While he may be a dependable worker, he leaves his work at the office and dives into his weekends. He has little problem resting on Sunday and enjoys a host of leisure activities.

I have always loved traveling, cooking, creating big celebrations for holidays, going to museums (and doing artwork on my own), watching movies, and of course, reading and writing.

Make his work fun

How can we leverage this love of fun to motivate the phlegmatic?

This is the child who will do his work if you promise the right reward. If he is diligent all week in school, reward him with a play date with a friend. Let him do an extra art project if he finishes his math in a reasonable time.

Use games to teach him times tables. Find books he loves and get him started reading on his own. I recently let C begin reading in bed for thirty minutes each night as his older brothers do. Now I find him reading on his own time. His reading skills are starting to take off. Reading is an easy, fun way for phlegmatics to be life-long learners.

Find an activity your child enjoys and use it to help him form better work habits. I love to write, so I was able to write a book start to finish in just over a year, despite my temperament. I have noticed lately that C has artistic talent, so I have suggested he might want to be an artist when he grows up. I am encouraging him to work harder on his art projects, always doing his best and being more detail-oriented.

Physical activity

The phlegmatic won’t put much effort into chores or homework on his own. Nor will he usually be good at or interested in most sports. But he might enjoy nature walks, hiking, swimming, soccer, or bowling.

I am terrible at most sports. After seven weeks of tennis instruction in college, I still could not hit the ball. I am not exaggerating. But the second half of the class was on bowling and I was able to do passably at that. Now I take the boys bowling once a season. C enjoys it too.

If I had my way, I would never get exercise. It’s not that every kind of exercise is distasteful, but that there are so many other things I’d like to do first! Exercise is never going to rank high in my priorities, even though I know I need it for my health. So what am I to do?

I have found that as a phlegmatic, I need to recognize and accept my weaknesses. You will probably laugh at how I get my exercise in. I walk around the circle of our house while reading a book. I need some exciting fiction to motivate me. I forbid myself to read the book at any time except when I’m walking.

I am going to try something similar with housework. I’d love to have a clean house, but I hate to clean it. So I’ve decided to get some audio books to put on only while I fold clothes, scrub the bathtub, etc.

I need to work with my temperament, instead of against it. Working against it ends in failure. I’ve been trying to overcome these faults all my life. Now’s the time to make progress.

Focus on one thing at a time

Spiritual writers tell us all to focus on just one virtue at a time. This is especially important for the phlegmatic, who has so little energy.

If you want a phlegmatic to form a habit of keeping his room clean, don’t give him anything else to concentrate on until he has mastered this. I had to start putting C in his room for thirty minutes every time he left his clothes on the floor (which was usually twice daily). After about a month of this, he is offending only once a week. It’s a small step, but it’s important. I can remind him of his success as I help him work on something new.

Work in small chunks

I confess I also take lots of breaks while working. I’ll do housework for half an hour, then spend ten minutes on the internet before taking up another task.

One of C’s chores is setting the table for supper. I am so tired of making sure he stays on task! We have begun using a timer. The first day, he had to work for two minutes with no goofing, then he got one minute free to play. Each time he did well, we extended the time one minute the next day. We are up to six minutes now. It’s made the chore into a game for him, and he seems to be forming better habits.

I am also teaching him to set the table as perfectly as possibly, putting each fork, knife, and spoon in the right place. I want him to consider what we are eating, then decide on his own what condiments we need. He is learning to set them inside the circle of plates rather than close to the edge.

I encourage you to try some of these things with your phlegmatic child, or with yourself if you are phlegmatic. Then tell us how it is working.

We must be able to do our duties well in order to be saints. We must be willing to put forth lots of effort to combat sin. We can start by forming good habits in little things.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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18 Responses

  1. barbaraschoeneberger

    My home schooled Latin student has many phlegmatic characteristics. I found a great site on line where a Latin teacher uses cat pictures and overlays Latin words on them. Since my student is an animal lover and has an affinity with cats, this has become a great tool for me. The site also has fables the teacher has put into simpler Latin for beginning to intermediate students and I use them, too. These are supplements I’ve put into the curriculum of the Latina Christiana series. Your readers may want to check out the Bestiaria Latina blog if they are teaching Latin to their kids. It has helped me engage my student who would be bored silly otherwise.

  2. Lydia

    I had to laugh when I read about you getting exercise by walking while reading. I consider it exercise when I walk and talk on the telephone. I really have a hard time sitting while being on the phone for a real conversation, so it is good for me to walk since I HATE exercise. I feel it is such a waste of my time when I would much rather be online reading articles 🙂 Maybe if I had a treadmill with a computer attached….

    I’m definitely phlegmatic/sanguine too and it is hard to motivate myself unless I really want to do something. I would much rather read or nap. I wish I was rich so I could afford a maid because I hate to clean too. Laundry I like doing. Cooking I’m good at, I just hate to HAVE to cook or figure out what to have. But cleaning, yuck!, even though I hate my house is messy and cluttered. My hubby is a packrat and if I could I would throw out or give away half of what is here because it would be less to tidy up. It really disturbs me. My also phlegmatic husband though can’t bear to part with anything could possibly be put to use in the future. Oh well. We are working on it.

    Since I suffer from sloth, what do you think is the connection of phlegmatic and sloth? And do you have any good resources that I will probably buy and stop reading halfway through, but at least I’ll know about them.

    • Connie Rossini

      LOL, Lydia. I wish I had room for a treadmill. Then it wouldn’t look so funny at least. My house is filled with books and Legos. Yes, there is DEFINITELY a connection between being phlegmatic and sloth. Each temperament has a primary vice to combat, and that’s it for phlegmatics. But we need to be careful of thinking that a phlegmatic is NECESSARILY lazy, as though he can’t help it or overcome it. And being laid-back is sometimes a big plus. I don’t have any resources for you right now beyond the Bennetts’ book. As I write A Spiritual Growth Plan for Your Phlegmatic Child I will try to come up with more. I’m working on the choleric now and I might do melancholic in between. I’m not sure yet.

      Regarding your husband, are you sure about his temperament and his motives for being a pack rat? In my experience, a phlegmatic might keep a lot of junk just because he doesn’t want to take the time to get rid of it. But thinking that you might need it on some far-off day sounds more melancholic to me. Just a thought.

  3. Charisse Tierney

    I, too, have a phlegmatic 8-year-old, so your thoughts and tips are very helpful. I have found good success with him by breaking larger projects into smaller tasks so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed and give up before he even starts. It is so helpful to understand our children’s temperaments and how we can best draw virtue out of them!

    • Connie Rossini

      I agree. Otherwise I would be constantly wondering why my kids just can’t do things my way. I want them to be comfortable with their own strengths and on the look out for temptations aimed at their weaknesses.

  4. Julie

    I’m melancholic/phlegmatic. One thing that has really been helping me is that there are apps that make a game out of chores or other menial tasks. My favorite is HabitRPG, which makes your to-do list act like an old school RPG. I know there are several others out there, so it’s worth looking around to see if one calls to you. While it’s a little embarrassing to realize that whether I dress nicely or get the dishes done can be decided by knowing I’ll lose a few points if I don’t and get some if I do (or maybe find a new pet!), it’s also good to have a tool that *does* make a difference. Even that tiny imaginary prize helps me be much more consistent.

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for the suggestion, Julie. Perhaps some other readers can benefit from it. I personally do not use any mobile devices except my “dumb phone” (i.e., one that does nothing but let you talk and receive texts). It’s so important to get over that embarrassment and acknowledge, “Yes, I do need something like this.” Much better to use some “silly” incentive and get the work done than proudly act as though it’s below you and leave the work undone.

  5. Frustrated Mom

    “Love of fun” is more a mark of a sanguine than phlegmatic. I am married to a phlegmatic, my daughter is a phlegmatic, my cousin (who is like my sister) is a phlegmatic, and my father is a phlegmatic. Sanguines love them a party, so motivating them is simpler. Turn tasks into fun. Motivating a phlegmatic, however, is next to impossible. They move when they’re d*mn good and ready. In the case of my teen daughter, she’s learning this phlegmatic weakness the hard way. By procrastinating and ignoring her homework, she is at risk of repeating courses and not graduating on time. I’ve tried hollering, making schedules with her, cajoling, reasoning, loving & hugging, bribery, doing her homework alongside her, nagging, threatening, rewards, junk food homework parties, encouraging & praising her, everything. Every tactic I can muster. Nothing works. Nothing. She’s great at *starting* things. But finishing them… Unfortunately, her dismissal of school is affecting all of us. We are all suffering to the extent that I’m now giving up. If she becomes the Word’s Oldest High School Senior so be it. Hopefully she’ll learn she can’t sit on her hands and do nothing. The world doesn’t work that way. :::whimpers in the corner:::

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Frustrated Mom. Sorry for your frustration! You are right that sanguines love fun even more than phlegmatics. Perhaps a better way to have put it is that phlegmatics need and enjoy leisure activities. As a phlegmatic myself, however, I can tell you that phlegmatics definitely can be motivated, but they must be motivated from the inside. You cannot force them and the more you nag, the more they will dig their feet in. Giving up on getting your daughter to study is probably better for you than trying to keep motivating someone who does not feel any inner inclination to do what you want. She has to learn that her actions can have permanent consequences. You won’t be there to make her do what she should all her life. Phlegmatics can only focus on one thing. One reason they quit is because something else captures their interest and takes their limited energy. Really, the best way to motivate a phlegmatic is to praise her and show appreciation for her whenever she does something good, even a small thing. They need encouragement and affection. They need to feel appreciated. They need lots of down time, time alone, but also time with friends. Her priorities may never be the same as yours. But she still might become very diligent at one thing. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, was a phlegmatic. With a single focus, a phlegmatic can accomplish a lot. But it will be what she wants to accomplish. If you were dealing with a young child, I’d probably give you more advice on what I am doing with my phlegmatic son. But your daughter probably needs to learn the hard way now. And she may not even care when the consequences come. But it is not true that phlegmatics can’t be motivated. Absolutely untrue. They just can’t be motivated to put their limited energy into something others care about but they do not. They must motivate themselves.

      • Frustrated Mom

        Thanks for taking the time to reply! It is appreciated. 😀

  6. Aleta Abejero

    Hi I have daughter who is phlegmatic- sanguine and she just would not finish quizes, test for Math and whatever subject it is that she did not feel like she wanted to finish. She would finish science with great deal of enthusiasm no but not math because in her own words she needs “freedom and fun” and math to her, is the opposite of that

    • Connie Rossini

      That’s pretty typical. You didn’t say how old she is or whether she is homeschooled. If she is younger (I’d say up to grade 5) and you are her teacher, I would do your best to make math fun for her. At least once a week do a fun, math-related activity. There are lots of good books for this. Some on math mysteries, sudoku puzzles, MindWare’s materials, etc. Or try a math-based game. This begins tying math into something practical and interesting. If you can, have her do math with siblings. Maybe make the fun activity tied to getting her regular math work done in the week. By 6th grade, she needs to start transitioning towards doing assignments even when they are not fun, but I still would use weekly fun activities until high school, when she just has to do the work. You could also tie getting her math homework done to special time alone with you, maybe a girls’ date at a coffee shop or a window-shopping outing. As a part sanguine person, she really needs attention and human interaction.

  7. Tina

    I’m curious which reading program you have used with your son. I have a phlegmatic 6 year old, and trying to teach him to read is like pulling teeth. We started with “…100 Easy Lessons” , then he just refused to continue. So we went to the Little Angel series and now that doesn’t interest him anymore. He’d much rather spend his day doing headstands on the couch!

  8. Connie Rossini

    Hi, Tina. I used Phonics Pathways with all my sons. None of them liked it. We combined it with Bob Books, which let them start reading stories very early on. That helped. When any of them “refused” to do phonics, I threatened to take away privileges, and they usually grudgingly acquiesced.

  9. roobee


    This is a great read. I have most recently gotten into learning about myself through my temperaments, and it has been so enlightening. so many behaviors explained, even with just accepting oneself.

    This article has also been quite helpful, and while i understand this was more focused to aid on how to raise a child i have some questions of my own. While i love doing house chores |(they are very therapeutic to me on weekends) i suffer with prioritization and motivation with my career. I will sit down on my desk to work and 10 minutes in i will gravitate to a loop hole of online shopping or articles (that is how i found this one). It can be quite frustrating actually as i find myself piling tasks and getting overwhelmed. Hoping to get any technique or insights on this from this forum.

    for some more context i am 57% Phlegmatic and 43% Sanguine.

  10. oluebube miracle

    I’m a phlegmatic melancholy but I loved school while I was in primary class. I would always have good grades, always diligent with my homework. Am I really a phlegmatic?

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