Personality is "the totality of an individual's behavioral and emotional characteristics," (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed.). How each personality develops depends on an ongoing interaction between individual genetic makeup and a parade of life experiences, beginning with the important context of family.
Starting in the late 1950s, a major research study observed the development of children's personalities between birth and adolescence. Conducted by a team of pediatric physicians led by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, this study reported, "children show distinct individuality in temperament in the first weeks of life, independently of their parents' handling or personality style." Thomas and Chess categorized the biologically based temperaments of the babies they observed as "easy, difficult, and slow to warm up."
Babies who had "easy" temperaments responded well to various kinds of child-rearing styles; while "difficult" babies had what the researchers called "handling problems" from the beginning - no matter what their parents did. "Slow to warm up" babies just seemed to take longer with various social situations. They had low activity levels, withdrew from new experiences, were slow to adjust to change, and often started out with negative moods.
In research today, child psychologist Jerome Kagan finds that "the child's own temperamental predispositions are the major determining factors in the kind of person he becomes later in life." Whether children are independent or timid, sociable or shy, easygoing or easily depressed, he says, depends primarily on their inborn traits. Kagan observes that parents are affected by their child's personality right from the beginning. Conversely, an infant's qualities can affect the kind of care he or she receives.
So, what is the role of parents in nurturing each child's personality?
- First, recognize that each child has a unique personality. Getting to know your infant and how she or he approaches the world is the most important parenting obligation.
- How you parent should match your baby's personality. Parenting techniques should vary from child to child.
- Create special experiences designed with your baby's personality in mind. For example, if your baby is shy, create "exploration" times to challenge her. If your baby is aggressive, set clear limits for acceptable behavior. If your baby is fearful, help him find coping methods (a favorite toy or a special song) that work for the both of you.
- Try to be flexible as your child develops. People don't fit easily into any one category - particularly across a lifetime. Your child's personality will continue to develop and that may change your relationship with him or her.
- A child's primary source of support and guidance - no matter what personality emerges - comes from the adults on whom he or she depends. Strive to be consistent and stable, in addition to flexible.