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Summary of the Role Personality Plays in the Development of Infants and Toddlers and Their Families

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Susan H. Turben, Ph.D.

Is it Behavior or Temperament: The Role of Personality in the Development of Infants, Toddlers and Families: Of all the trends we see in Early Childhood Education, collaborative cooperation and helpfulness among Early Start, Early Head Start, existing infant toddler programs, and supportive disciplines, tops the list. Collaboration to understand the bodies and brains of infants greatly impacts, not only the infant in our care, but the mental health and personal growth of older children, their advocates, their teachers and parents everywhere.

It is therapeutic to have an “is it personality or is it behavior?" conversation, as a kind of refresher of recent research, especially newer neurological and biological info, on the roots of infant behavior. The answer to the above question is: “observe how early an infant’s temperament becomes evident from birth; watch how personality traits literally pop out at parents and teachers, allowing the baby to produce his own development and the adults to support the incredible competencies of the infant. Personality informs behavior, not the other way around."

Example of this? “My child squirmed out of my arms from the second he was born…” She takes her sweet time learning to like new places and faces, new foods, always has.” “How can a two week old sleep so much?" " How can a three month old be so active and never want to sleep?"  "This baby has us jumping to attention at one month, I thought what will she do to get her way when she’s three?” These are examples of personality guiding and presenting behavior.

Behavior, on the other hand, is fast becoming a term for body and brain activity caused by chemical and biological organization and developmental change. “Development: is becoming a term for systemic organic and neurological investigation. DNA and other genetic data sets are furthering this scientific approach to the study of mind and body. Remember (or do you still think of it this way?) when “developmentally appropriate” was the prevailing educational view of the child, and represented a curriculum approach that presented “the whole child” as a composite of many areas of development, everything from self-help to mental development?

If developmental approaches do not fill the bill so well any more, it is because infant research related to 0-3 year olds and infant-family relationships has revealed an understanding of personality as the root of who we are and how we communicate, act and feel. There is a science-plus-education implicit in this newer thinking. The human infant’s ability to think about his own thinking at a very young age is a big research idea that is taking hold quickly.

This field of study is called “theory of mind.” Blood chemistry research on infants eighteen months old who are not talking, elegant studies of sensory perception, infant attention and neural density studies of small animal brains, all inform a broad area of inquiry that supports much older data that show important effects of early experience within the child’s unique biological system and external effects of experience and parent-child relationships.

Theory of mind research represents a scientific developmental attempt to quantify what it means to each human infant and child to display knowledge, as a result of thinking about his or her own thinking. As infant’s personalities emerge, it is often clear what they are thinking, evidenced by sensory-motor (also a term that will soon change) behavioral acts.

As simultaneous thinkers, infants take into their experience many stimuli and screen out the excess. Their temperamental traits are observably the most obvious way for adults to watch how infants display their unique styles of communication, their personal preferences for relating to objects and people, and their personal belief systems. Infants very early in life actually produce activity and behaviors, as an outpouring of their personality that indicates knowledge of permanency, attachment, self-control, regulation and many other competencies.

Loving adults who see their infants as passive and incapable of thoughtful expression often overlook these skills and abilities in the infant period of personal growth. In fact symbolic expression and creative activity are common to all infants as indicators of talents and abilities. That is what babies do! They exhibit their thinking, as they reach and grasp, coo and beam, swallow and suck and acquire knowledge through relationships, direct experiences and an objectified view of their world, from first a horizontal position and then a vertical posture.

This summary of behavioral and personality research will be only the beginning of the conversation parents and professionals need to have to build up children’s confidence and self-regard as infants and toddlers progress steadily through childhood and adolescence. To treat children with respect and with a view of who they are and how they got there requires adults to focus on personality and temperament in relation to their own rememberances of parenthood and childhood, and then to incorporate those traits of personality into child rearing strategies that guide children’s personal growth in positive ways.

Successful children are the lucky ones who have adults in their lives who have taken the time to look at behavior as a response to temperament. There is no more important mission that for adults to understand and observe the personalities in their midst. It is one crucial way to keep children safe, secure and eager.

Ask Dr. Susan