Development of the Self Concept

The first glimmer of a self-concept occurs in infanc , when the child learns that some things are always there (e.g., its body) and some things are there only sometimes (e.g., the mother's breast). The child makes a distinction between its own body and everything else: it discovers that boundaries exist between what is "me" and what is "not me." Gradually, the infant comes to realize that it is distinct from the rest of the world. This distinction forms the rudimentary sense of self, awareness of one' s body.

Have you ever seen a dog bark at its own reflection in a mirror? The dog barks because it does not recognize that the image is a reflection of itself. Dogs soon get bore with mirrors and ignore their reflections. Humans and some primates do recognize tha the mirror is a self-reflection. Psychologists have devised a clever technique for study ing whether a monkey or a human recognizes their own reflection. They place a small mark on the face that cannot be seen without a mirror . Then, when faced with the mirror, they look to see if the monkey or child uses the reflection to touch the mark on thei own face. Chimpanzees and orangutans do exhibit self-recognition with mirrors, and will find the mark after about two to three days with the mirror (Gallup, 1977a). Studie of lower primates, such as the macaque, do not find that they exhibit self-recognitio with mirrors, even after 2,400 hours of exposure to the mirror (Gallup, 1977b).

In normal children, self-recognition with mirrors occurs on average at age 18 months (Lewis & Ramsay , 2004). There is, however, some variability in age of onset of self-recognition, with 15 months being the earliest documented case, and age 24 months being the point at which all or almost all children demonstrate self-recognition. Interestingly, pretend play appears to require self-recognition (Lewis & Ramsay, 2004). A child pretending to feed a doll imaginary food or a child drinking an imag inary liquid from a cup must know that what he or she is doing is not real.

Pretending behavior requires that the child distinguish "this is what I pretend to be doing" from "this is what I actually am doing." In a study of children aged 15 to 21 months, only those children who exhibited self-recognition to a mirror were capable of pretend play (Lewis & Ramsay , 2004). Moreover, children do not begin using personal pronouns (I, me, mine) until they gain self-recognition abilities in the mirror test. Self-recognition is therefore an important developmental achievement that allows the child to go on to more complex manifestations of self-awareness, such as engaging in pretend play and representing the self in language with personal pronouns.

Although very young children are fascinated with their reflections, it takes while for a child to be able to recognize photographs of him- or herself in a group. A child needs to be about 2 years old before he or she can pick his or her picture out of a crowd (Baumeister , 1991). Around this time, the second year of life, children begin to grasp the idea that other people have expectations for them. For example, this is about the time when children can follow rules set up by parents. Children learn that some behaviors are good and other behaviors are bad, and they evaluate their own behavior against these standards. They will smile when they do something good and frown when something bad occurs. They clearly are developing a sense of themselves relative to standards. This is the beginning of self-esteem.

Among the first aspects of the self that people learn to identify and associat with themselves are sex and age. This typically occurs between 2 and 3 years of age, when a child begins to call himself a boy or herself a girl and to refer to other children as boys or girls. A rudimentary knowledge of age also develops, with a child often learning to hold up the number of fingers that designate age. Children at thi age also expand their self-concept to include reference to a family . "I'm Sarah's brother," a child might say , implying that part of his self-concept includes being in the same family as Sarah.

From age 3 to about 12, children' s self-concepts are based mainly on developing talents and skills. The child thinks of him- or herself as someone who can do this or cannot do that, such as recite the alphabet, tie his own shoes, read, walk to school by herself, tell time, or write in cursive handwriting. At this age, the self-concept is defined mainly in terms of sex, age, family of origin, and what the child believes h or she can or cannot do.

Starting with the school years, ages 5 or 6 onward, children increasingly begin to compare their skills and abilities with those of others. They are now either better than or worse than other children. This is the beginning of social comparison, which most people engage in to varying degrees and do so for the rest of their lives (Baumeister, 1997). Social comparison is the evaluation of oneself or one' s performance in terms of a comparison with a reference group. "Am I faster , smarter, more popular, more attractive, and so on than my friends?" is the question that children repeatedly ask themselves during this period of development.

Also during this time, children learn that they can lie and keep secrets. This is based on the realization that there is a hidden side to the self, a side that includes private attributes, such as thoughts, feelings, and desires. The realization that "Mommy doesn't know everything about me" is a big step. The development of an inner , private self-concept is a major but often dif ficult development in the growth of th self-concept. It may start out with children developing an imaginary friend, someone only they can see or hear . This imaginary friend may actually be the children' s firs attempt to communicate to their parents that they know there is a secret part, an inner part, to their understanding of the self. Later , children develop the full realization that only they have access to their own thoughts, feelings, and desires and that no one else can know this part of themselves unless they choose to tell others. It is the children's privilege to decide whether to tell others about these aspects of themselves. This is a big step in the developing self-concept.

As children grow from childhood to adolescence their self-concept changes from one based on such concrete characteristics as physical appearance and possessions to one that is based on more abstract psychological terms. We illustrate this below with examples drawn from Montemayor and Eisen (1977). The statements are from children of dif ferent ages all answering the question "Who am I?"

The following is from a 9-year -old boy in the fourth grade. Notice how concrete his description is, and that he uses mostly tangible concepts such as age, sex, name, address, and other aspects of his physical self:

My name is Bruce. I have br own eyes and br own hair. And I have br own eyebrows. I am nine years old. I LOVE sports. I have seven people in my family. I have gr eat eyesight and I have lots of friends. I will be 10 in September. I live at 1923 Pinecr est. I am a boy . I have an uncle that is almost 7 feet tall. My school is Pinecr est and my teacher is Mrs V . I play Hockey.

The next statement is from a girl aged 1 11/2 in the sixth grade. Notice that she frequently refers to her likes, and also emphasizes more abstract personality and social characteristics:

My name is Alice. I am a human being. I am a girl. I am a truthful person. I am not pr etty. I do so-so in my studies. I am a very good cellist and a very good pianist. I am a little bit tall for my age. I like several boys and girls. I am old-fashioned. I play tennis and am a very good swimmer . I try to be helpful. I am always r eady to be friends with anybody . Mostly I am good, but I lose my temper. I am not well-liked by some girls. I don' t know if I'm liked by boys or not.

The final example is from a 17-yea -old girl in the twelfth grade. Notice how she emphasizes interpersonal characteristics, her typical mood states, and several ideological and belief references in her self-description:

I am a human being. I am a girl. I am an individual. I don' t know who I am. I am a Pisces. I am a moody persona. I am an indecisive person. I am an ambitious person. I am a very curious person. I am not an individual. I am a loner. I am an American (God help me). I am a Democrat. I am a liberal person. I am a radical. I am a conservative. I am a pseudoliberal. I am an atheist. I am not a classifiable person (i.e., I don t want to be classified)

When asked for a self-description, young children describe themselves in terms of where they live, their age and gender , what they look like, and what they do. Adolescents, however, describe themselves in terms of their personality characteristics and their beliefs, qualities that produce a picture of the self that is unique. Self-concepts undergo transformations as children age, based mainly on the child' s ability to infer characteristics that underlie their behavior. For example, a young child might say that he likes to play basketball, hockey , or baseball, whereas an older child might say "I am an athlete." Adolescents infer from their own behavior the existence of underlying personality traits, abilities, and motives.

A final unfolding of the self-concept, during th teen years, involves perspective taking: the ability to take the perspectives of others, or to see oneself as others do, to step outside of oneself and imagine how one appears to other people. This is why many teenagers go through a period of extreme self-consciousness during this time, focusing much of their energy on how they appear to others. You might vividly recall this period of your life, the strong emotions involved in episodes of objective self-awareness, of seeing oneself as an object of others' attention. Remember going to gym class in your funny gym uniform, or that first trip to the beach in your new swim ming suit? Often, objective self-awareness is experienced as shyness, and for some people this is a chronic problem.

The self-concept is a distinct knowledge structure, made up of many dif ferent elements and stored in our memories much as we might store a cognitive map of our home town.

In the development of the self, children learn to compare themselves to others. "I'm faster than you" is a phrase commonly heard whenever a group of young children gather. This is the beginning of social comparison, where people define and evaluate themselves in comparison to others.

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