Before we begin discussing your child’s personality, it is important to understand what we are talking about. The American Psychological Association defines it as follows: “Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. The study of personality focuses on two broad areas: One is understanding individual differences in particular personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability. The other is understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole.” It is clear, therefore, that personality encompasses intelligence, emotion, motivation and social interactions.
Children’s personalities are affected by many different factors: innate factors, birth order, gender, physical characteristics, early experience and even ethnic affiliation. The innate aspects of personality have been proven again and again. Children are frequently similar to their parents when they were young. This means that some personality traits are hard-wired into a child when he is born. Piaget, a well-known child development theorist, describes a ‘spiral of learning’ (see below) after birth which includes an initial schema (the hard-wired traits) on which the baby builds. At the moment of birth he acquires a view of the world. Immediately upon exposure to new experiences, he assimilates the information, make accommodations for the new understanding and develops a new schema for the world. The spiral repeats with every new experience. This pattern demonstrates how personality can be affected by environmental influences. A child learns that certain actions will result in specific reactions and begins to form his personality as a result.
There are five dominant personality traits which can be identified in children or adults. These traits are hard-wired or innate.
The first personality trait which you might recognize in your child is extroversion or introversion. The extroverted child will be sociable, enjoy meeting new people and will talk early. This will be the child that walks into a room, looks around and immediately identifies someone they want to be friends with. They will be comfortable with new people, even from a very young age. The introverted child will be reluctant to meet new people, will hang back from groups and may even be termed ‘shy’. We strongly recommend not using this term as it brands a child, qualifying them as non-sociable. Using terminology such as ‘it takes her a while to warm-up’, gives her a chance to get comfortable with new situations and new people.
A second personality trait which can be recognized in children or adults is agreeableness. Agreeable children will be trusting, thoughtful and generous. A non-agreeable child will tend to be more egocentric, placing self-interest ahead of others. Such a child will spontaneously hug another grieving child, share without being told and trust others to treat them well. An agreeable child is not necessarily extroverted. An introverted child can be very agreeable, but won’t reach out to people, however is very pleasant when approached. An egocentric child can show appropriate social responses, however ultimately is more concerned about his own comfort.
Another easily recognized trait in children and adults is impulsivity as opposed to conscientiousness. An impulsive child will tend to jump into situations with both feet. This is the child that dashes out into the road to get a straying ball without regard for safety. A conscientious child will think out things and plan what should be done in advance. As he grows up, this will be greatly beneficial because he is the one that plans carefully for his future. On the other hand, the impulsive child will be the one that comes across as ‘fun’ or exciting to be with. Such a child will need a lot of stimulation, or she will be quickly bored.
A fourth personality trait in children is their level of emotionality or neuroticism. A more emotional or neurotic child is the one who worries about things, get quickly angry or sad or infectiously happy. All their emotions are experienced deeply and projected clearly. This is the child who is quickly frustrated or discouraged and often demonstrates negative emotions. A less emotional child will be more stable, easier to get along with. They will also show less negativity. Parenting a neurotic child is always challenging.
The fifth identifiable personality trait for children is openness or imaginativeness and creativity. An open child will be willing to explore new things or situations. She will be more aware of her feelings, more appreciative of beauty and more intellectually curious. A more conservative child will demonstrate reduced risk-taking and a greater need for approval, and effort to be acceptable to others. The open child may challenge authority figures earlier, since he has a tendency to think about the ‘why’ of instructions. The challenge should not be taken as a personal attack; generally the open child really does want to know the reason for things and will ask more questions. Answering his questions clearly and logically will satisfy him and he will likely comply.
How are these innate personality traits affected by learning as described by Piaget? Exposure to the different ways the significant people in the child’s life have of reacting to situations will strengthen or weaken certain personality traits. For example, a child raised in a stressful environment will more likely be less extroverted and more neurotic and conventional, always worrying about pleasing others. A child raised in a loving and encouraging environment will tend to be more extroverted and more trusting and less emotional. The innate positive character traits can be strengthened through early interactions or the negative traits can be eased. Early childhood influences don’t set the child’s personality, but can redirect into more positive or more negative trends, depending on the type of influence. It behooves a caring parent to recognize early their child’s personality traits and understand the type of guidance he needs to become a healthy, functional individual. There are early childhood programs such as FasTracKids which can help parents in this undertaking, to foster characteristics that will benefit them in their youth and as they grow up in an increasingly challenging world.
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