Tag: Child

Who am I?

An intriguing examination of how we build our sense of self.

Note: This article goes back to 2007, part of a programme that I was involved in back then.  However, re-reading the article shows it to be timeless, so trust you find it interesting.  There is a fascinating test, still online, details provided at the end of the article – but if you can’t wait, it’s here.

Finding the self.

What is Self?

Edited by Fiona Kerr from original text by Dorothy Miell

So what is self and how do we study its development? 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 Open2.net’s “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,
  3. an awareness of the continuity of one’s identity,
  4. 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.


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.

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.

OpenLearn, part of The Open University, have designed a test to illustrate how people of different ages define themselves. Once you take the test, you can then compare yourself to the database of other people who have taken the test to see how you compare with others in your age group, how you compare with people from other age groups and how people differ according to gender. Alternatively you can view the database without taking the test first. Try taking the test with a child and see how your results compare. So why not take the test to find out “Who Am I?”

That test link is here.

MIELL, D. (1995) ‘Developing a Sense of Self’
BARNES, P. (ed.) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers

The above article was published by the BBC as part of their Child of our Time series, unfortunately no longer available online.

The results of the Who Am I test based on 53,345 entries as at October 30th, 2011, show overwhelmingly that both sexes at all ages describe their relationships and inner emotions as more important than their physical or character descriptions. For men from the age of 16-19 until 61+ their description of their relationships scores more important than their inner self but the margin is slight. For women over the same age span the situation is reversed; inner emotions score marginally higher than relationships.

What is very revealing is that for both sexes across the whole of their adult life, their physical and character identities are significantly less important than their social and emotional selves.

The Power of the Dog

An incredible moving account of man’s special relationship with the dog.

(Reproduced in full with the very kind written permission of the author, Laban T. where it was first published on UK Commentators.)

The Power of the Dog

Ross’s dog is gravely ill.

 I suppose if you don’t have a dog it is hard to understand why anyone would be so upset (that isn’t an insult or a judgement just a statement of fact) and if you do there isn’t much need to explain.

 As so often he’s spot-on. I remember in my teens a girlfriend walking through the door one Saturday morning and bursting into floods of tears – and it wasn’t the state of my room.

What’s the matter ?

They’ve taken her to the vet to be put down!” – ‘her’ being the companion of her childhood, a thousand walks and a hundred days out in the country with parents. But I didn’t think like that at the time – I was properly sympathetic and held her till my shoulders were soaked in tears – but it was only a dog, a nice enough dog, but still a dog. At this distance memory fails, but I probably assumed it was just a girl thing, what with being more emotionally open and all that.

The same blindness afflicted me with regard to the effect of children, although I think I wasn’t alone in this. Our single lives were so endlessly fascinating, what friends were doing, who was with whom, the places to go, the people, the parties, that we looked on people who’d got children slightly pityingly, as if they’d been afflicted with a crippling disease (and it IS crippling to a wild social life, although I know a few exceptional people and couples who have just carried on – I’m just not exceptional) which not only curtailed their social life but made them talk about children an awful lot – as if that topic was of any interest at all compared to the important things.

You live and learn. Hopefully. Now I feel more that becoming a parent is gaining access to the secret heart of life and the long chain of familial links down the generations. Not that it doesn’t have its many, many drawbacks. Susan and I looked at each other one day after #2 had arrived and said “whatever did we do with all that time we had?”.

I digress. So I finally learned about why parents are interested in kids, but still didn’t get the dog thing. Our neighbours were childless but treated their dogs like their children – they slept upstairs and their doings were part of our everyday chats. Most odd, we thought.

Dog lovers …

I’d taken my firstborn up to visit his grandpa, and grandpa and I were out walking with grandpa’s dog and the pushchair plus baby. I loved that new dad bit, with bonny boy getting cooed over by all and sundry … the checkout queue turning into a little love fest … and he WAS a beautiful baby – he’s 21 now and six foot.

Lady approaching on the pavement, breaks into happy smile :

Oh, what a beautiful …

(Dad smiles modestly… he’s getting used to this …)


(Smile vanishes instantly)

Then our youngest went off to Big School, and it left a bit of a gap in Susan’s life. Suddenly there were no babies to care for – and she likes caring for things. One day she went off and returned with this chap (and promptly had him snipped, to my horror). Apparently Labradors were very even tempered, good with children and an all round ideal first dog for a family with no dog-owning history on either side, at least since our great-grandparents were on the farm. What’s impressive is that AFAIK, apparently all dogs are descended from domesticated wolves. Just shows what breeding will do.

The dog.

The kids were thrilled, promised to walk him etc., etc., – didn’t last and soon Mum and Dad were doing most of the walks. But the exercise is great – he and we usually get about three miles a day in – it’s good for an ageing chap with a desk job. I’ve learned most of the footpaths and circular routes round the house.

Labradors seem to eat anything – three week old bird carcases, stones, deer poo, sheep poo, horse poo – and they roll in fox poo, which is not a nice smell and means an hour shampooing him in the garden (then a shower and complete change of clothes). On the good side they love apples, blackberries, plums, the farmer’s turnips – healthy eaters.

He once found a rotting, rank dead rabbit inside a plastic bag, scoffed it, then sat in his crate in the kitchen and disgorged the lot some hours later. Not a nice clean-up job – the smell at close quarters was truly evil.

They’re meant to have more acid in their stomachs than humans to enable digestion of bad food – but ours pushes that way beyond the limits. The Muslims are right enough when they consider dogs unclean. They’re filthy, dirty creatures.

But they have a way of wrapping themselves round the heart. Always pleased to have human company, playful, cheery.  All the family quickly grew to love him – even grandma, very much a non-dog person, has a soft spot.

October last year, grandma is round for Sunday tea/dinner, I’m just out in the garden using the last of the light at ten to six.

Can he stay out here with you? ”


The call for tea. I call him – he’s not anywhere in the garden. Round the house – no sign.

Has he come in?”


He’s not in the garden

Poor grandma. She was left alone in the house while everyone emptied into the darkening garden, calling, then after a quick conference and grabbing of mobiles, two cars head slowly in opposite directions, and the boys are in the local wood with torches. Daughter and I take the car across rough farm tracks, along the routes of his favourite walks, stopping, scanning the gloomy fields, calling him, on again, repeat.

Forty minutes later it’s pitch black and the cars are back. The boys have been right through the woods to the fields on the other side, which we’ve also scanned from the cars as best we could, then back again. Up and down the village – again – half expecting to see a limp form in the headlights. Not a sight or sound.

Tea at seven in almost total silence. The only thing I can compare it with was the first family Christmas without my grandmother.

Eight o’clock. He’s been gone two hours. We’ve been out in the garden and around the house again. Nothing. The feeling that he’s gone for good starts to solidify.

Nine o’clock. My daughter’s standing at the back door, calling his name. Nothing. I feel she’s wasting her time, but in solidarity I go to the side door to call. Open it – he’s standing on the step.

God knows where he’d been. One moment of tremendous pleasure – calling my daughter into the kitchen, without telling her who was there, then watching the ecstatic reunion – the boys hearing the noise and tumbling in, happy uproar. “For he was lost, and is found“.

Once again Mr Kipling has the words :

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart to a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find – it’s your own affair
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone – wherever it goes – for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-term loan is as bad as a long
So why in Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?