Are we born with our personalities, or does life make us who we are?

I remember my tenth-grade teacher posing this question, and the passionate debate among my classmates that ensued. Are people mostly a result of “nature” their inborn qualities, or “nurture,” how they are raised?

Many years later, I was introduced to research about temperament, or the inborn reaction style, of babies. Nurses were able to predict which newborn babies would have temper tantrums at age four, which children would be shy and which would be outgoing, and they were even able to predict which children would do well in school. Imagine being able to look at a baby and say, “Yep, definitely future student council president material….This one’s going to be a valedictorian…Uh-oh, better be ready; this one has a temper!” How did they know?

These predictions were based on the babies’ inborn temperaments, which are the reaction styles that we are all born with and that follow us through life. A three-year-old who keeps trying to finish a puzzle is most likely going to turn into a girl who is diligent about her schoolwork. A child who is cautious – that is, high in withdrawal – will be scared of strangers as a four-year-old, and probably be the type who prefers one or two close friends in high school. The highly active five-year-old who loves to run and jump might become the dance head in high school.

All of these inborn traits can end up being channeled towards good or bad. A highly social child who likes to approach new people can either be the president of the social justice club at her high school, or the class queen who only socializes with certain girls. Even being high in negative reactivity can be used for good if a person tends to have strong reactions to things being wrong or unfair – that’s how many important initiatives get started, like schools for children with Down syndrome or programs to teach to provide support to children in low income areas.

So, who is right in the nature vs. nurture debate? Both sides! We are born with our temperaments, with our “nature,” but our parents, teachers and life experiences “nurture” us in how we utilize our free choice in expressing it.

Temperament isn’t destiny. Anything can be used for good or for bad. It’s all in how you channel it.

Child Psychology expert  Dr. Sandee McClowry divided temperment into four key elements.

Task Persistence How long you will stick to a task in order to finish it.

Approach/Withdrawal What is your reaction to new situations? People who are high in approach are excited about new experiences or meeting new people. People who are high in withdrawal act shy, withdrawing from new situations or new people.

Activity How active are you? Some people need to move, and others can sit quietly for a long time.

Negative Reactivity How strongly do you react to disappointment and frustration?