Dear Dr. Ray,

Some theories say that personality is pretty much established by age five or six. What does that say about adopting kids older than that?

Older Than Six Myself

Before pondering what any such theory might mean for adoption, let’s ask the primary question: Is the theory true? If not, then whatever conclusions it leads to can be ignored.

The idea that personality is settled by the age of five or so has its roots back in the early years of psychology. It started with Freud, and others have since added their own twists to it. Research, experience and common sense have all shown it to be, at the least, incomplete or, at the most, wrong.

Yes, a child’s innate personality, or temperament, is wired in young. It’s genetically part of who he is. Also, many behaviors, traits and habits get a solid start in the first several years of life. To assert that personality is crystallized that young, however, or that it will stubbornly resist reshaping is quite a psychological stretch.

I don’t know about you, but I’m very different now than I was at age five. My wife says I have the maturity level of a ten-year-old, which to me seems pretty high for a husband.

At age five or six, did you have any political party affiliation? Deep religious convictions? Moving on to second grade, what qualities did you value in a future spouse? Could you even read, much less know whether it’s good strategy to call a draw play on third down and seven?

You don’t need a rocket scientist’s personality to know that who we are has virtually unlimited potential to change. For some more than others, change can be a slow, steep slog. Still the potential is there. Barring serious mental complications, it’s there until life is over.

In almost everything we do, we are to some degree free to choose other than we always have or to act differently than we’ve acted in the past. In other words, we are not irresistibly bound to what we were but can recognize and work to alter whatever we wish about ourselves. Most folks, even we “shrink” types, would agree that if we grown-ups can change, kids are even more malleable.

Don’t mishear me. (Is that part of your personality?) I’m not saying that a child’s early life experiences don’t matter. On the contrary, some kids experience neglect, trauma or misguided upbringing, and redirecting their personality, however young they are, can take a long time and great effort. Still, it is not impossible.

All else being equal, if a child has known turbulence at a young age, the sooner one removes the turbulence the better. All four children whom we adopted beyond infancy (ages two, three, four and four) had some nasty or chaotic experiences prior to coming to us. Nevertheless, ever so slowly over the years, what looked to be their personalities began to evolve. The kids gradually reflected more of our values, our expectations. To be sure, shyness essentially stayed shyness, impulsiveness continued as a lack of caution, and talkativeness morphed into verbosity. The essence of personality will remain somewhat durable; the expression of it can be influenced by parenting.

The children’s personalities have come to reflect a complex interplay of their inborn wiring, early experiences and our family life. How it all will look with time only God fully knows. One thing is certain: We’re feeling better with time about the direction.

To briefly reiterate (a personality trait I’ve had since the age of three):

  1. Personality is not established by the age of six.
  2. How a child’s early life affects his later life depends upon many intervening factors, not the least of which is high-quality parenting.
  3. Humans often change only by the inch, but the younger the human, the more quickly the inches come.
  4. Some kids mature more from thirteen to sixteen than they do from five to thirteen.
  5. If you wish to adopt an older child, realize that you will be loving and raising a unique personality from day one. Unique doesn’t mean “set in stone.”

Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It Pages 22-24
Copyright © 2010, Dr. Ray Guarendi
Servant Books