Personality is defined as a set of traits that distinguish an individual’s habits, ideas, emotions, and mannerisms. While the characteristics of personality continue to evolve throughout a person’s lifespan, the key fundamentals are mostly cast in stone during the early stages of childhood. Before a child even learns to speak, he or she is possibly developing temperaments and dispositions that will last throughout life (Rothbart et al.)
Stages of personality development in childhood
This sample essay discusses early personality development occurs irrespective of upbringing; effecting children from wealthy and middle-class families, as well as children brought up in impoverished settings.
Five factors of personality
According to the Five Factor Model, personality is broken into the following five traits, each of which are evidenced in individuals at a very early age:
- Openness to experience: marked by attributes such as intellectual curiosity, appreciation for music and art, a capacity for unique ideas, receptiveness to a range of emotion, and willingness to try new activities. People at the high end of the openness scale are generally referred to as open-minded and adventurous, as opposed to rigid and cautious.
- Conscientiousness: ambition, organization, reliability, and self-discipline are the defining characteristics of conscientious people, who tend to be calculated—as opposed to spontaneous—in their actions.
- Extraversion: assertiveness, high energy, gregariousness, a talkative nature, and a positive outlook on life are traits that are typically demonstrated by extroverts.
- Agreeableness: people who tend to be compassionate, cooperative, trusting, and refined in temperament—as opposed to callous, unhelpful, condescending, and temperamental—are generally seen as agreeable.
- Neuroticism: characterized by a lack of emotional stability, neurotic people typically lack impulse control and are much likelier than others to experience negative emotions such as anger, despair, fear, frustration, and nervousness. With a lot of people, neuroticism stems from some form of childhood trauma.
Collectively known as OCEAN, the five factors were initially identified during the mid-20th century by the research team of Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal, who analyzed hundreds of subjects in a variety of settings (Tupes et al.) Though the team first released their findings in 1961, it would be more than two decades before their model gained widespread acceptance within the academic community.
Freudian theories on personality formation
According to theories advanced by Sigmund Freud and his acolytes—tripartite theory, developmental stage theory, type theory—the vast majority of personality formation happens early in life and is fully molded by the end of puberty. Before the millennium, the consensus among theorists was that personality was immutable by age 30; or “set like plaster,” as psychologist William James put it in an 1890 essay (Costa).
Today, however, many theorists are leaning toward the plasticity principle, which suggests that personality development is caused by environmental factors that occur throughout life, but most actively so between the ages of 20 and 40. Though change is less likely during an individual’s twilight years, the principle asserts that personality is always subject to influence.
Genetics versus environment
Children born to and raised by the same parents tend to have as many differing characteristics as randomly grouped children from different families (Turkheimer et al.) However, identical twins separated at birth are just as likely to develop similar personalities as identical twins who are brought up together. What this shows is that shared genetics plays a much greater role than family environment in shaping an individual’s personality.
Though initially surprised by these findings, researchers have since determined that differences between regular siblings are often down to non-environmental factors, such as differing treatment from the same parents; different formative experiences based on a given family’s situation at a particular time; and different pursuits and social surroundings outside of home. As siblings reach adulthood and leave their family units, ensuing lifestyle factors such as occupation, travel, marital status, and procreation can lead to further distinctions of personality between groups of brothers and sisters.
The role of child rearing in personality development
In the United States and Canada, most young boys and girls are encouraged to develop skills of self-reliance. In certain regards, children are even placed on equal footing with their parents when it comes to household activities, such as where to eat, what movies to see, or where to go for weekend family outings. Often times, earning skills are also developed at a young age, when children get their first allowances for doing household chores.
The situation is different on the other side of the world, where children are generally taught to tow the family line and downplay any individualistic urges that contradict others in the household. In China, for instance, children are not taught skills of independence and self-sufficiency, because such traits are seen as insubordinate in the eyes of parental authority (O’Neil).
Birth order, parenting, and personality development
Famed child psychologist and book author Kevin Leman has posited that birth order is the reason why siblings turn out so different from one another (Leman). The theory holds that parents treat their children differently based on the order in which a son or daughter is born. In other words, a firstborn is likely to be raised with a different set of disciplines and standards than a middle or lastborn child. By the same token, an only child is likely to be raised differently than a pair or group of siblings.
When a young couple has their first child, the new parents learn about child-rearing as they go along, and a lot of the rules they set for their little one are simply based on instinct. A couple without any prior parenting experience is also likely to be strict and highly protective toward their firstborn. With all the challenges that entail teaching a toddler to stand, walk, and chew, first-time parents tend to be to-the-book regarding child-rearing, and likelier to fret about the slightest of challenges.
Consequently, firstborn children tend to become perfectionists and natural leaders; always striving to make their parents proud and to act as role models for their younger siblings (Voo).
Changes in parenting with subsequent children
If a couple decides to have a second child, their parenting skills will have already developed somewhat through trial and error with their firstborn. Since the parents will now have a better grasp on situations where a baby acts up or makes a mess, they’ll know that it’s not an emergency whenever their second born throws food, wets its crib, or cries without pain or injury. Now that there will be two youngsters in the house, the parents attention will also be divided.
Psychologically, this can make things much different for second-born children, who never get to experience being the center of attention like firstborns. Therefore, second-born children are less likely to feel inclined towards roles that put them in charge of their surroundings, but are likelier to exert greater effort into people-pleasing and approval-seeking.
Firstborns tend to exhibit the following characteristics: authoritativeness, cautiousness, reliability, and achievement-oriented behavior. Beginning life as the center of attention, they work hard to appeal to the grownups in their world. With no immediate peers in their surroundings, they usually relate to adults more than other children, and only assimilate slowly to their own age group after entering school. Often times, firstborns exhibit adult-like mannerisms.
As a firstborn grows into adulthood, he or she is likely to be highly competitive in work and social settings. In college, firstborns will often strive to be the hardest working and highest scoring students within their given area of study. Once they hit the job market, firstborns typically aspire to be the best-dressed and highest achieving individuals within their chosen fields.
Middle children sometimes grown up feeling like the odd ones out, since they never get the exclusive attention that parents shower—for at least some stretch of time—on first and lastborns. Consequently, middle children tend to look outside of home for attention, and often amass larger social circles than any of their siblings. Growing up, middle children are likelier to go through some sort of rebellious phase, whether it involves dressing outrageously, engaging in delinquent activity, or simply behaving in a defiant manner towards authority. Though the defiant steak usually tempers with adulthood, a lot of middle children maintain a solid sense of independent mindedness throughout life.
The most common exception to the middle child rule occurs when the first and middle-born are of the opposite sex. For instance, in families where the first child is a boy and the second is a girl, she might take on firstborn traits by virtue of being the firstborn girl. Much of this is due to the different methods of parenting that are usually applied to one gender from the other.
By the time a lastborn comes into the picture, the parents will have had plenty of experience with child-rearing. Therefore, lastborns tend to be raised in a more carefree manner, and often develop fun-loving, outgoing personality traits as a result. As the baby of the house, a lastborn gets to be the center of attention among more people than the firstborn ever did; especially if the siblings are years older than the youngest one. As the lastborn matures, he or she is likelier to take a less complicated view on life than the perfectionist firstborn or the defiant middle child.
The only child
An only child faces a more unique situation, since he or she is the sole focus of parental attention; not just temporarily, like a firstborn, but for life. With no other children in the household, only children typically develop adult-like mannerisms at an earlier age than their peers. As the sole heir and carrier of a family’s bloodline, an only child might be under more pressure to make good in the world, and is likeliest to face such challenges with a sense of determination and perfectionism similar to that of a firstborn.
Rothbart, M. K., Stephan A. Ahadi, and D. E. Evans. “Temperament and personality: Origins and outcomes.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 2000. 122-135. Print.
Tupes, Ernest C., and Raymond E. Christal. “Recurrent Personality Factors Based on Trait Ratings.” Journal of Personality. June 1992. 225-251. Print.
Costa Jr., Paul. T., and Robert R. McCrae. “Set like plaster? Evidence for the stability of adult personality.” Can Personality Change? Eds. Heatherton, Todd F., and Joel L. Weinberger. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997. 21–40. Print.
Turkheimer, Eric, and Mary Waldron. “Nonshared environment: A theoretical, methodological, and quantitative review.” Psychological Bulletin. Jan. 2000. 78-108. Print.
O’Neil, Dennis. “Personality Development.” PROCESS OF SOCIALIZATION: How We Acquire Our Cultures, World Views, and Personalities. n.p. 4 July 2006. Web. 23 Aug. 2015.
Leman, Kevin. The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. Grand Rapids, Mich: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1985. Print.
Voo, Jocelyn. “Birth Order and Personality.” American Baby. Meredith Corporation. Aug. 2006. Web. 23 Aug. 2015.