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How Much Influence Do Parents Have on Babies' Temperament?

Big sister C and baby sister G

Now that Baby G is nearing the 4 month mark,  her personality is really starting to emerge. Jon and I both agree that if asked to describe her temperament, the words that would come to mind are “sweet” and “laid back.” Now that her colic has subsided, she’s just a an easy, happy baby girl who rarely fusses unless she’s very tired (and is asking to be swaddled, which calms her immediately) or very hungry. And then, once she gets what she’s asking for, she settles right back down and is happy again.

Even through her 3-4 week colicky spell, I’ve felt like she’s a very zen, happy baby since the first time I ever held her. She just gives off a sweetness vibe that makes me want to smile. Other people tell me the same thing. She’s like a tiny, sunshiney elf.  Of course, a baby’s temperament in the first year isn’t always entirely predictive. I know lots of very happy kids who were inconsolably fussy infants, and vice versa. But with each of my own five kids, I’ve definitely seen the outline, the foundation of the child he or she would become by observing his or her temperament and personality during that first year.

For example, two of my babies were somewhat cautious and anxious from the very start, and those are traits that definitely followed them into childhood, no matter what I did or didn’t do as a parent. One of mine was full of energy as an infant, and he met physical milestones with tremendous vigor and enthusiasm.  That one is now a 12 year old athlete extraordinaire. You see what I mean?

Ten years ago, I was asked to write an essay for an online magazine rebutting the central thesis of that season’s hot new book. called “The Nurture Assumption.” The book argued that parents have essentially NO influence on how their children eventually turn out. I argued against that position, making the case that how we parent our children matters a great deal in how they grow and develop over time. I still hold that position, even though since I wrote the essay, I have learned in the most painful, personal  way imaginable, that no matter how hard we try as parents, sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough to overcome biology and other, non-parental external influences on our children.  It’s a fascinating and somewhat unpredictable dance in human development – this ongoing  nature vs. nurture interplay that shapes and molds our children as they grow. But since the only thing we CAN control is the nurture part, I still can’t imagine dismissing it as fundamentally unimportant, even as we see very clearly how much of our kids personalities are present on the first day we meet them as newborns.

What about your own kids? Have you noticed personality traits in infancy that seem to remain in place even as they move into childhood, meaning that the environment around them has more and more influence on their development? What personality traits in infancy do you think are most and least likely to hang around as a baby grows up? And what personality and temperament traits do you believe are most – and least – subject to parental influence? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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