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Education & Development

What is Self?

Updated Tuesday 4th January 2005

What is self and how do we study its development? 

Two children sit by a fireplace Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

As we grow older we become aware of differences between ourselves and others, for example: what I look like; my gender; what makes me happy or sad. A sense of self is not achieved in a single step; we don’t emerge from our mother’s womb as fully formed adults. As our bodies grow and change we also learn more and more about ourselves. How we describe ourselves to others changes as we get older. This process is not necessarily constant - some aspects of self may stay the same for many years, others may change rapidly.

There may also be big differences to how you feel and how you want others to think you are. This may colour your choices in self-description.

A sense of self is also a cultural construction - in some societies individual uniqueness and self-expression is seen as vulgar and uncivilised. In the "Who Am I?" test we will be examining self in a Western sense, the gradual formation of becoming a self-aware individual. We’ll be grouping the results in age groups, so you can see how the self-descriptions change as people get older. Although self development is most significant in childhood, we’ve decided to keep the results going to see how things change into adulthood (if at all!).

I exist!
A child’s first step to self-understanding is the recognition that she or he exists. As an infant explores the world and interacts with caregivers, she becomes aware that she has power - she is an agent of change within her own environment. She is able to cause things to happen and control objects. This awareness is known as "self-as-subject", "I" or the "existential self":

There are thought to be four elements to the existential self:

  1. an awareness of one’s own agency (i.e. one’s power to act) in life events,
  2. an awareness of the uniqueness of one’s own experience, of one’s distinctiveness from other people,
    an awareness of the continuity of one’s identity,
  3. an awareness of one’s own awareness, the element of reflexiveness.

For example, if a child closes his or her eyes, the world goes dark. If a toy is touched, it moves. The interaction with the world is physical, external and, in developmental terms, it helps the child differentiate between self and other.

What Makes Me?
At around a child’s second birthday, many children recognise themselves in a mirror or in a photograph. In Western cultures, from the age of 18 months to 3 years of age, infants start to display self-awareness through the use of the word "me" or "mine". This self-sense isn’t a passive, self-reflective discovery, but is often the result of effort, particularly in rivalry with others. It arises from striving in the face of obstacles.

These are the second steps in establishing a full sense of self, the acquisition and elaboration as "self-as-object" or "me", now often referred to as the "categorical self". This aspect of self concerns the qualities that define oneself as a person, e.g. gender, name and relationships with others. Once a child has gained a certain level of self-awareness (of the existential self) he or she begins to place herself (or is placed by others) into a set of categories. This aspect of self is the most influenced by social factors, since it is made up of social roles (such as being a student, a sister, a friend) and characteristics that come from a comparison with others (such as trustworthiness, shyness or sporting ability). Social context is an important feature in self-development.

Self-Esteem
Measuring self-esteem is difficult. We might feel good about ourselves in one aspect of our lives, but not so good in others. One way of measuring self-esteem in children is to ask questions about how they feel in the different aspects of their life, such as: scholastic competence; athletic competence; social acceptance; behavioural conduct; physical appearance.

How we feel about ourselves overall may bear little or no relationship to how we feel about ourselves in these different areas. It’s the importance we place on our areas of achievement or failure that leads to an overall level of self-esteem. A child who is anxious to succeed at sport would have a high level of self-esteem if she did well at sport, but low self-esteem if her performance in sport was poor, even if the child was good academically or socially. The match between our aspirations and performance is one important factor in determining self-esteem. Another factor which might influence a child’s overall feeling of self-esteem is the regard in which they are held by "significant others", people whose opinion the child values, such as parents, teachers and peers.

 
Family of three Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Gender identity
Children by the age of about two are able to correctly label themselves as a boy or a girl. But it is not until later that they understand that gender is a stable concept, e.g. that boys cannot become mothers. Being able to identify themselves in terms of gender helps children develop a sense of categorical self and helps define appropriate behaviour for boys and girls. Children develop their gender roles in part through imitation of models, so parents’ reactions to the behaviour of children are an important influence on children’s developing sense of gender identity. Parents who try to raise their children in a non-sexist way have encountered difficulties, as other influences such as the media and society itself can counter their attempts.

If children are shown individual differences between people, that different people believe different things, they can see that contradictory beliefs and behaviours can co-exist, that the rules for their family may not be true of the family next door, but both are valid.

Describing self changes as we grow older
A child uses comparison with others to see how he or she fits into different categories. In order to evaluate if he or she is short, tall, clever or shy, a child either has to compare themselves physically with others, or consider their evaluation by others.

This contrast between self and others helps the child to develop an increasingly complex understanding about self. Children’s self-descriptions change as they become more able to evaluate themselves and develop a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Children seem to think about themselves in different ways as they get older. Younger children seem to focus more on physical features, activities and behaviours, whereas older children mention more psychological characteristics. So, by the age of about 18, individuals are able to describe themselves in terms of the world of emotions, attitudes, secrets and wishes. Self-reflection is focused inwards, on their inner, private world.

  • This article has been adapted, with permission, by the Child Of Our Time webteam from the original 1995 text Developing a Sense of Self by Dorothy Miell. The original can be found in Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, edited by Peter Barnes and published by Blackwell
 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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