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Psychology of the Child: Development of a Sense of Self

By Jacqueline Chinappi

A child enters the early school age years with no real sense of self. During these years the child starts to evaluate him or herself. They also start to find self worth and value. The child starts to morally develop using positive influences from the parents. This is known as self theory.


The purpose of the self-theory is to “make transactions between the self and the world turn out as positively and beneficially as possible.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 243.) An individual’s idea about himself usually is taken from their emotions, feelings, fantasies, thoughts and dreams. Dealings with one’s environment can also impact one’s self theory about him. Self-theory changes over time as one grows and as we see cognitive development.

Me and I

William James presented one of the earliest psychological examinations of self-theory. The two components of the self that he illustrated were the me and the I. The me is described as the self which one can describe such as physical traits, personality, social positions and relations. The I is described as more subjective. The four basic attributes for the I are: “a sense of agency or initiation of behaviors, a sense of uniqueness, a sense of continuity from moment to moment and from day to day, and an awareness of one’s own awareness.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 243.)

Damon and Hart (1988) built upon James’ ideas and developed a representation of self-understanding that included both the me and the I. Four areas were classified for the me which included the physical self, the active self, the social self and the psychological self. The three areas which were classified for the I were continuity, distinctiveness and agency. The characteristics of the me and I change from early childhood up until late adolescence. “At each stage, the self-theory is the result of a person’s cognitive capacities and dominant motives as he or she comes into contact with the stage-related expectations of the culture.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p.245.)

According to Damon and Hart each realm of the self changes dealing with the common organizing principles that which all components of the me and I are created. As the individual gets in touch with different stage-related anticipations of their culture the self theory is developed. During infancy “the self consists of a gradual awareness of one’s independent existence.” During toddler hood “self theory grows through an active process of self differentiation.” During early school age the self theory becomes more distinguished and “children can distinguish between real self and ideal self.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 245.) Categorical identifications are described as the self comprehension during early childhood that depends on the various classes that an individual fits into. An example of this is when you ask a 3 ½ year old “what kind of person are you?” and then he or she answers “I have brown hair” The child views themselves according to factors such as physical traits or religion. When middle childhood occurs self comprehension depends on comparative assessments.

Comparisons and Self Assessment

Comparative assessments depend on contrasting oneself with other people or with social norms. An example of this is asking a child “What are you like” and the child answers “I’m bigger than other kids.” The theory of mind is the ordinary way that a child understands one another’s behavior. This theory proposes that beliefs, desires and actions are reasonably connected. Between the ages of 4 and 6 years old the child becomes more conscious of other people’s various points of view. During this time a child takes part in an activity because they hold the belief that this specific action will help to gratify a yearning.

At approximately the age of 5 years old children are able to sense false beliefs. They have the ability to separate their views from another’s point of view. This is a big part of self-awareness. Children start to ponder about how other’s see them and they also consider rights and wrongs regarding moral issues. Assessments of value are made by an individual for each part of the self such as physical, active, social and psychological. This self–esteem is founded on “messages of love, support and approval from others; specific attributes and competencies; and the way one regards these specific aspects of the self in comparison with others in relation to one’s ideal self.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 247.) Some experiences in childhood lead to either worth or worthlessness. These experiences influence how children see themselves even as early as 3 years old. A child may develop a positive or negative view of him or herself during self-evaluation.

In the next article we will take a look at empathy and perspective taking and how it is developed through early childhood.