You probably noticed your preschooler's unique personality peeking out those first few months of life --reaching eagerly for a rattle or perhaps pushing away a teddy bear. But between the ages of 3 and 5, your child's personality is really going to emerge.
What sorts of changes can you expect during the preschool years, and what can parents do to help their child blossom? Or should you even try intervene at all?
Self-Expression and (a Little) Self Control
From age 3 to 5, kids are becoming more comfortable expressing themselves with words, says Kirby Deater-Deckard, psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and author of Parenting Stress.
During these years, preschoolers also gain more self-control. They begin to rely less on you and others and more on themselves. They're learning how to calm themselves when they get excited, frightened, or upset, and they're becoming more attentive and less emotionally reactive.
Preschoolers are also building their self-confidence. And they're "gaining lots of experience in learning how to treat others," Deater-Deckard says.
By age 5, kids typically start showing more concern for mom and dad, at last starting to understand that you have your own needs and feelings. They also begin to show affection more easily, develop a fantasy life, and may see-saw between being demanding and being cooperative.
Ways You Can Help Your Child's Personality Grow
While your child's personality will blossom on its own naturally, there's actually a lot you can do to help as well as a few things to avoid.
1. Remember that your child is unique. "Children differ in remarkable ways from each other in their budding personalities," Deater-Deckard says. That includes siblings. Ultimately, "healthy personality development is fostered by parenting that is sensitive and responsive to the individual strengths and needs of the child."
2. Encourage play. Play is a huge influence on a child's development. Pediatrician Tanya R. Altmann, author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers, says giving kids time to play is key to helping your child's personality blossom.
Play helps kids develop physically, mentally, and emotionally. It teaches them to work in groups, settle conflicts, develop their imagination, and try on different roles. When kids play, they practice decision-making, learn to stand up for themselves, create, explore, and lead.
3. Avoid labels. You want your child's personality to develop on its own without being shaped by your (or anyone else's) views. So avoid labeling your preschooler with words like shy, bossy, emotional, or tough.
4. Set an example. You're probably the person your preschooler sees and imitates the most. So it's up to you to model politeness, sharing, and patience.
5. Realize it's nature and nurture. Don't chalk up your child's personality to just their nature or the nurturing you provide. Both matter, Deater-Deckard says, and both work "together to create the diversity of children’s and adults' personalities."
6. Let your child be themselves, not an image of you. Maybe you're very outgoing, focused, quiet, or shy. You may want your child to be like that, too. But it's much more important that your child be them or themselves and that your child make friends and meet the world in their own way.
There are more ways to help your child's personality grow. For instance, reading to your preschooler can be an important key, Altmann says. She also favors limiting television time.
Other experts recommend supporting your preschooler's interests and broadening your child's experiences. How you help your child's personality develop just may turn out to be as unique as your child.
Should You Try to Change Your Preschooler?
Preschoolers should be allowed to be themselves while still being encourage to try out things that may seem to stretch their emerging personalities.
By the preschool years, Deater-Deckard says, the major parts of personality are already pretty stable. But they're not rigid. "People change," Deater-Deckard says, and the parts of us that make up our personalities have a certain amount of flexibility.
Deater-Deckard suggests that instead of trying to change your child's personality, focus on giving the child experiences "that may support growth in new directions."
"I encourage parents to enjoy and even relish each child’s individual qualities and strengths," Deater-Deckard says, "while they try to figure out how to respond to that same child’s more challenging or difficult behaviors."
Deater-Deckard's main advice for parents is to "strive to create a loving and supportive environment, rather than trying to make the child become like a particular kind of person."