Understanding the Personality Development of Children

Children are more than little adults. They have to go through a great deal of growth—intellectually, emotionally, and socially—on their way to becoming adults. When parents realize this, there is less strain on both parents and children. Family home evenings (a Mormon family gathering, but any family gathering applies) can be more enjoyable and successful when a child’s personality development is considered. Remembering that a child does not think like an adult, have the same attention span, or see the world the same way adults do, can help a parent plan family activities everyone can enjoy.

Children Mormon TempleSometimes we may think that children are too young to understand religious principles or that we really don’t influence our older children much. But Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, taught that “all the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1938], p. 354).

The Spirit of Christ strives to help each of Heavenly Father’s children. In addition, Satan cannot tempt little children until they reach the age of accountability (which is eight, in Mormon beliefs). Therefore, parents have God as their ally and a clear opportunity to help their children develop a sure and safe foundation for living righteous and Christian lives.

Although Satan cannot tempt little children directly, their innocence and trust make them very open to suggestions and to the influences of others. They look to their parents, older brothers and sisters, and other children and adults for examples to follow. For these reasons, childhood is a crucial time for laying the proper foundation.

Parents need to always be alert to the influences around their children and work hard to teach them about God and His commandments. Parents often accidentally lead children astray through uncaring, unthinking, and inconsistent behavior. Perhaps this is one reason why the Lord has said that the iniquity of the fathers will be visited upon the children (see Exodus 20:5) and why he holds parents responsible if they have not taught their children the things they must know (see Doctrine and Covenants 68:25).

The following chart lists some common characteristics of children’s behavior, arranged by broad age groups. It also gives reasons for the behaviors and how they might affect planning fun and productive family home evenings and activities. However, when considering any growth or behavior chart, remember that not every child will necessarily fit into those patterns. Children are individuals and grow and develop differently and at different speeds. For instance, all children in one family will not walk or talk at the same age. Each child should be respected as an individual. The descriptions in this chart identify general behavior only, and you will note that the age groupings overlap.

Birth to 3 years of age
1. Children like affection, being held and cuddled. They especially like motion—being carried, tossed, and sat on a lap. Infants and young children learn trust and love through touch, first. They exploring the world through their senses and movements, and they gradually gain more control over their muscles. Give lots of affection, holding, cuddling, talking and listening. They’re unable to understand rules, so correct their behavior with patience and love. They have a limited attention span. They will only listen to things that interest them.
2. They lose interest quickly and will interrupt conversations, stories, or activities with cries, noises, and wiggling. They enjoy simple, repeated gestures and touches, playing with objects, putting them in their mouths and throwing them. Children at this age are only aware of their own viewpoints, wants, and experiences. Doing things over and over helps them learn about things. Provide short, vivid stories and games (peek-a-boo, patty-cake) that challenge their mental and sensory abilities. Repeat and practice short behaviors. Talk about Heavenly Father and Jesus and what They want for us.
3. The children stop “naughty” behavior when you tell them to, but they soon goes back to it as though they don’t care what you want. Children don’t understand rules and can’t understand how any one situation relates to another. They don’t have the ability to foresee consequences. Don’t try to teach concepts or rules; they can’t understand them. But do have rules and be consistent in enforcing them. (No, you can’t have that cookie.) Respond to them in positive ways to help them feel good about themselves.
2 to 7 years of age
1. Children will display affection at odd times. They may run to you for a quick hug and then go on with their play. They like affection but only in small doses. They may sometimes push unasked-for affection aside when their attention is elsewhere. They reject your help even though there are many things they can’t do for themselves, like drawing and other tasks requiring good finger and hand coordination. Parents meet most of their children’s needs and satisfactions. As these young children begin to conquer their world, they need to know that this source of security is still there. They have an equally important need to do things, to be active, and to explore their world as their control over their bodies improves. The Mormon Church has programs for young children. Your church may have something similar. Give the children simple things to do—holding pictures, leading songs. Increase these and add talks (teaching very short lessons to other children) as they get older. Let them feel they are an important part of family activities. Give affection and praise. At church, practice “good” behaviors like folding arms and bowing heads, kneeling for prayers, drinking from a sacrament cup, and sitting still. Teach them about Jesus Christ and the gospel and how you feel about them.
2. Children may seem selfish, and unsharing. They want things others are using and do not play with children so much as alongside them. Disagreements and frustrations are common. They interrupt others and can’t stay long with one activity if others aren’t doing it. They like stories and imitate others. Children still think the world is the way they see it. They don’t understand that there can be more than one reason for anything. They can’t understand others’ needs. They also can’t keep a lot of ideas in their heads for very long, so they turn to other things when their attention lags or they get bored. Read or tell scripture stories (Mormons often tell these from the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible). Explain the “hard” parts. Choose stories that show “good” behavior to copy. Explain with concrete terms, not with abstract principles. Define words like repentance, faith, and forgiveness with familiar examples. Use examples, simply told, from your own or other family members’ lives.
3. Children may seem willful and disobedient and unable to justify “naughty” behavior. Their reasons may be illogical: “Jimmy (an imaginary friend) made me.” They are often slow to obey and have to be reminded. “Good” means “satisfying” to them; they still don’t understand how rules work, really. They don’t reason the same way adults do. They learn by testing their limits. Introduce rules but keep them simple. Be firm and consistent. Help children to be successful so they can develop self-confidence. Show how obedience will help them grow.
7 to 12 years of age
1. Boys may appear less open to affection than girls, particularly around others, but may accept it more willingly when hurt or frustrated. Both are active, like games, and prefer the company of their own gender. Boys and girls are learning what they are all about. They play at the roles set for them much of the time. Although they look to each other for examples, parental love and approval are very important. Be ready to listen. Give each children some personal time. Support them in their problems. Provide real-life examples (stories and short examples) of good role models.
2. They like games and may spend much time discussing rules, fairness, and cheating. Some are aggressive while others lack self-confidence. In school, girls may be more successful, obedient, and more interested than boys. Children may be interested in clubs, cliques, or (hopefully not) neighborhood gangs, seeking friends outside the home. Games and clubs help children learn about themselves and how rules apply to their lives. They are very aware of competition and concerned about their performance. Because girls are usually better at language and social skills at this age, they may do better than boys – who may feel inferior or rejected. Provide challenging games that teach sportsmanship, honesty, and cooperation. If you’re a member of the Mormon faith, help boys get ready for priesthood service. Teach the commandments and how we should act as children of our Father in Heaven. Choose activities that build family unity.
3. They question parents’ decisions, wanting to know “why.” When your explanations are fair or logical, they will accept them; if they don’t make sense or are inconsistent, they will question them, but usually obey. Children have discovered that things that happen are governed by or explained by rules. Knowing the rules and how they work is extremely important because it helps them predict consequences. If your children question your decisions, don’t become angry. Explain and then allow them to respond. Be fair and impartial in enforcing rules, and help them understand how Heavenly Father’s rules are for our good.
11 to adulthood
1. A boy may become awkward and clumsy, while a girl may become silly and self-centered. Both may seem irresponsible. Physical growth and changes are emotionally upsetting; the youth feel that things are happening faster than they can handle. They feel more socially than physically awkward. Discuss religious and life principles with your children. Avoid arguing over their different views; rather teach by sharing your own faith, experiences, uncertainty. Be supportive, encouraging, and accepting. Be consistent in enforcing rules and explain them in terms of principles.
2. Youth may enjoy sports, group activities, and discussions about “life,” values, and principles (justice, equality, peace). But they may show great intolerance for others’ opinions. They may want to escape the family but be afraid to do so. Sports and play are no longer ways of exploring rules. They reassure youth about their abilities as they watch and copy others while establishing their own adult identities. Youth are especially concerned about relationships with each other. They may be insecure and uncertain about what society expects. Encourage family support for your children’s activities. Be friendly and open to their friends. Discuss marriage goals and how priesthood (if Mormon) and service activities express the principles of love, brotherhood, and forgiveness. Find ways to bring their friends into family activities rather than competing for time and loyalty.
3. Youth often question values and come to distrust rules, especially rules without any strong ethical or moral basis. They may insist upon their “rights” to be independent. They may seem uncertain of what is meant by “right” and “wrong” for a time. They often reject authority as a reason to approve or disapprove of a behavior. Youth have found by now that rules are not infallible. They are now able to handle abstract concepts and are busy building their own guiding philosophy of life. They now look behind the rules for the principles. Teach the idea of baptism, priesthood, and marriage covenants (which are covered in Mormon doctrine – your faith may see them differently). Help your children see scripture as a record of people trying to cope with problems. Give them opportunities to become involved in challenging discussions of ethical problems and gospel applications. These discussions are practice for making decisions on their own later.
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