Remember first grade? The bully who threw sand in your hair? The little princess with the heart shaped sandwiches who never shared? The proto-nerd who sat in the front row waving his hand and squirming like he had to pee every time the teacher asked a question?
Odds are, these kids haven’t changed much over the past 30 years. And neither have you. A new study demonstrates that many of our core personality traits are set by the time we’re 7 years old.
Researchers in a long-term study examined four major personality traits in children:
- talkativeness – “verbal fluency,” or, in plain English, how much and how well a child speaks.
- impulsiveness – the tendency to …oooh! look! A shiny thing!
- adaptability – the ability to respond well to new situations.
- self-minimizing behavior – being humble, to the point of negating your own importance.
When these kids grew up, their early personality scores in these areas matched related sets of adult behaviors. Talkative youngsters became Type-A adults who like to control situations. They’re also smart and curious, both as kids and adults.
Self-minimizing kids became shy grown-ups, more likely to seek out advice and say negative things about themselves. Highly adaptable children became cheerful, flexible and creative as adults.
What’s most striking to me about this study is how the character traits that serve kids best as grown-ups are the ones we damp down in schools and polite society. We spend so much energy trying to teach our kids to be less impulsive, less bossy, less chaotic. We want them to be polite, to accept our advice, to be humble. But are we training them away from the best of their personalities?
Photo: Axel Burhmann