Heredity And Environment Help Shape Personality

Posted On: 07.19.2012, Type: Articles, Subject: Special Education, Age Range: (1 - 5), Grade: Prekindergarten,Kindergarten,

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Children seem to have distinct temperaments almost from birth. Some are cheerful and easy to care for, whereas others are fussy and demanding. Researchers have identified many temperamental styles that emerge early in life and are relatively enduring, including general activity level, adaptability, persistence, adventurousness, shyness, inhibitedness, irritability, and distractibility. Most psychologists agree that such temperamental differences are biologically based and have genetic origins.

Genetic differences in temperament are only predispositions to behave in certain ways, however, and environmental conditions may point different children with the same predisposition in somewhat different directions. One influential environmental factor is the parenting style that mothers, fathers, and other primary caregivers use in raising children. In mainstream Western culture the ideal situation seems to be authoritative parenting, which combines affection and respect for children with reasonable restrictions on behavior. Authoritative parents provide a loving and supportive home, hold high expectations and standards for performance, explain why behaviors are or are not acceptable, enforce household rules consistently, include children in decision making, and provide age-appropriate opportunities for autonomy. Children from authoritative homes tend to be happy, energetic, self-confident, and likeable. They make friends easily and show self-control and concern for the rights and needs of others. Children of authoritative parents appear well adjusted, in part, because their behavior fits well with the values espoused by mainstream Western culture. They listen respectfully to others, can follow rules by the time they reach school age, are relatively independent and self-regulating, and strive for academic achievement.

Authoritative parenting is not universally “best,” however. Certain other parenting styles may be better suited to particular cultures and environments. For instance, in authoritarian parenting, parents expect complete and immediate compliance; they neither negotiate expectations nor provide reasons for their requests. In many Asian American and Hispanic families, high demands for obedience are made within the context of close, supportive parent–child relationships. Underlying the “control” message is a more important message: “I love you and want you to do well, but it is equally important that you act for the good of the family and community”. Authoritarian parenting is also more common in impoverished economic environments. When families live in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods where danger potentially lurks around every corner, parents may better serve their children by being very strict and directive about activities. In any case, keep in mind that parenting styles have, at most, only a moderate influence on children’s personalities. Many children and adolescents thrive despite their caregivers’ diverse parenting styles, provided that those caregivers aren’t severely neglectful or abusive.

A child’s cultural environment also influences personality development more directly by encouraging (i.e., socializing) certain kinds of behaviors. For example, many children in China are raised to be shy, whereas many in Zambia and the United States are raised to smile and be outgoing.

Nature and nurture interact in numerous ways to shape children’s personalities. For instance, children who are temperamentally energetic and adventuresome will seek out a wider variety of experiences than those who are quiet and restrained. Children who are naturally vivacious and outgoing will have more opportunities than shy children to learn social skills and establish rewarding interpersonal relationships. When children have temperaments that clash with cultural norms or parental expectations, they are apt to evoke negative reactions in others and lead parents to use a more controlling, authoritarian parenting style. One psychologist has made this point by describing her experiences with her own two children:

I . . . reared a pair of very different children. My older daughter hardly ever wanted to do anything that her father and I didn’t want her to do. My younger daughter often did. Raising the first was easy; raising the second was, um, interesting. . . .

How do you treat two children both the same when they aren’t the same—when they do different things and say different things, have different abilities and different [temperaments]? . . . I would have been pegged as a permissive parent with my first child, a bossy one with my second. . . .

My husband and I seldom had hard-and-fast rules with our first child; generally we didn’t need them. With our second child we had all sorts of rules and none of them worked. Reason with her? Give me a break. Often we ended up taking the shut-your-mouth-and-do-what-you’re-told route. That didn’t work either. In the end we pretty much gave up. Somehow we all made it through her teens.

As you can see, temperamentally lively or adventuresome children may sometimes call for more adult control than restrained, easygoing ones.

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