When a kid is hard working or easily ruffled, people instinctively compliment or criticize the parenting. But what if there's something else at play—or rather, what if it's the friend your kid is playing with?
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is the first of its kind. In examining personality traits of young children over time, researchers found that their personality traits are "contagious" among each other.
“Parents spend a lot of their time trying to teach their child to be patient, to be a good listener, not to be impulsive,” said Emily Durbin, the study's co-investigator and associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “But this wasn’t their parents or their teachers affecting them—it was their friends. It turns out that 3- and 4-year-olds are being change agents.”
It's pretty mind-blowing to think that people's personalities aren't just genetic or hard-coded, that environment plays a huge role.
“Our finding, that personality traits are ‘contagious’ among children, flies in the face of common assumptions that personality is ingrained and can’t be changed,” said Jennifer Watling Neal, the study's other co-investigator and also an associate professor of psychology at MSU. “This is important because some personality traits can help children succeed in life, while others can hold them back.”
The researchers studied two preschool classes (one class of 3-year-olds and one class of 4-year-olds) for a school year. In examining the preschoolers' personality traits and following their social networks, the researchers also found that positive traits catch on more easily than negative ones. Kids whose play partners were extroverted or hard-working took on those traits, while kids whose play partners were overanxious and easily frustrated didn't take on those traits. They're not really sure why yet. Maybe we're more prone to develop positive traits.
But before you go and redefine your kid's friend group, know that picking your kids' friends can also be harmful. Parents don't always judge a person's character correctly and have their own biases.
As Mom.me contributor Dr. Cara Natterson says, "It's one thing to separate my kid from a bad influence, but it's another to assume you know what the influence will be in the first place. I am no better at picking friends for my kids than they are. I may even be worse."