March 7, 2007
Sometimes when I am very tired as I was today, I will lie on my belly, put my arm under my head, bump up against a pillow, cross my feet at the ankles, and fall instantly, blissfully, asleep. I've been doing this all my life although I've never really thought about it until today. It's one of my most primal behaviors. My wife's sister Becky sleeps while holding onto the corners of pillowcases, eventually wearing them threadbare. An electrician in LA, a guy named Joe who spoke in whispers, claimed no matter where he slept he would wake with his head facing north. This trait while comforting was something of an embarrassment, "I'm a human compass," he admitted sheepishly, "my wife hates it, especially on trips. My mother said I did it in the crib." All of us have some primal behaviors we retreat to, and sleep being one of the most basic and misunderstood needs of all things with brains, happens to be one place where these behaviors reveal themselves easily.
During my wife's first pregnancy we spent a great deal of the time speculating on our future (and at that point somewhat theoretical) child. We discussed smarts and looks and so on and so on. I don't think we discussed personality once. He was born and from the beginning his personality clear... obvious and often unexpected. Immediately after his birth we practiced parenting techniques based on our own lives and various books, but until we started modifying them through the filter of his personality many approaches failed miserably. Now personality takes priority over dogma (with much more success). It is almost the one thing around which most of our understanding of him is based. The idea that your personality is well formed at birth is a weird concept because most of us like to think we arrived at our present state through a series of formative events. But more and more I tend to believe those formative events influence us only within a range determined by our particular personalities. Of course family perceptions have a multiplying effect. If we see a child and consider him to be kind, or selfish, or sensitive, or sad or whatever we will tend to treat him accordingly, so perhaps over time personalities become more hard coded than they would have naturally.
Even though our second son has been with us for only 7 days, we are developing theories about what kind of person he might become. Ridiculous as it might seem for a little piglet-like human being who suckles, sleeps, and poops, it seems so obvious after 2 years of experience with our first child that understanding his personality is one of our most important jobs as parents.
Ask someone you have known your entire life to tell you three stories about your early childhood. I'll bet they'll tell you stories that reveal their understanding of your most raw personality, the unvarnished you, and like primal ways of finding comfort in sleep, these traits are inescapable, revealed when we are most unguarded. They are the filters through which we see the world and sometimes the instincts we work hardest to supress. Noble or ignoble, there might be some comfort in knowing that through all our iterations as human beings there are some things about us that never change.
semi-related: Wikipedia on personality psychology, 9 traits of infant personality, Clotaire Rapaille on reducing culture to primal codes (and using those codes for base, but nevertheless ingenious, marketing campaigns)