What Does it Mean to Have a Healthy Sense of Self?

It is important for children to develop a strong sense of self in general.  Children need opportunities to develop autonomy (through choice and demonstrating that they can do things independently) and competence (through completing tasks successfully), and reading together can be an avenue for the development of these skills.  Children who struggle with reading and academics often do not develop these skills adequately, so structuring reading time to boost these skills can actually be a wonderful intervention for less confident readers.  We can also build confident and persistent readers by helping children develop growth mindsets, and recognizing that hard work pays off (rather than seeing ability as fixed).  Erik Erikson thought broadly about how children respond to all sorts of events that occur during their early years from birth to preschool and beyond.  His theories have become one of the most influential theories of child development and are used to explain children’s personality and identity development.  This theory explains how children develop a healthy sense of self (what some people might call Ego or a personality), rather than focusing on children’s unconscious desires (what Freud called the Id).  This sense of self develops throughout a person’s entire life, although, with “The Adventures of McRed”, we will only focus on the early stages of psychosocial development.  In each of these stages, a person deals with a major issue that all people his or her age experience.


Sense of Self: A person’s perception of his skills and abilities, and of how these skills and abilities are valued by others around him.  A child with a healthy sense of self generally trusts the world around him, asks for help when needed but takes pleasure in completing tasks independently, and feels purposeful and competent.


For instance, over time, newborns must learn how to trust their caregivers.  The way that each child progresses through each stage of development predicts whether or not he will possess the characteristic (or ego strength) associated with successfully completing that stage.  So, infants who learn to be adequately trusting – who know that their caregivers will respond to crying and care for them as needed, but are less comfortable with unfamiliar adults – are said to be hopeful.  Hopefulness is a personality trait that these children will carry with them throughout their lives and apply to new situations as they arise. That is job of young children to learn to tackle these challenges – needing to trust parents and other caregivers, to become more independent, and to face new and difficult situations – and develop feelings of hope, will, purpose, and competence. Moreover, this strong sense of sense is important for academic development and motivation to complete academic tasks.


Why is Developing a Sense of Self Important for Future Autonomy?

These character traits contribute to the type of experience you have when interacting with your child, and to the way that your child approaches schoolwork, teachers, and many other life experiences.  Children’s beliefs about their own capabilities and the world around them play an important role in how they tackle new tasks.  We know that children who have secure attachment relationships with their parents – that is, children who are trusting – also engage in higher quality and more frequent book-reading sessions with their parents.[i]   This stands to reason because it is easier and more enjoyable to read together when you have a strong relationship.  This initial trust, and having a secure relationship that allows children to safely explore on their own, can lead to more independent reading skills over time.  Children who develop these strong relationships and feel comfortable exploring then learn to do things independently and be proud of their own efforts, rather than ashamed of their mistakes, because important adults have made them feel comfortable attempting to be independent.  As you read more about Erikson’s theory, you will begin to see why taking pride in their own work leads these children to develop their own interests, follow through on projects that require persistence, and acquire the skills to become lifelong, motivated readers.  Parents have so much power to influence their child’s progress through these early stages and to make sure that they enters elementary school with all of those important skills, both academic and social-emotional, in place.


How Does a Child’s Sense of Self Develop Over Time?

We’ve already begun to talk about the importance of trust for children’s early development, and now I will describe each of the early stages in Erikson’s model of personality development.  These stages are described in order to give you a general sense of the psychosocial issues that children commonly cope with during childhood, and how these issues affect the way children approach people and tasks, including reading.  Because this is a broad theory, Erikson’s ideas should be used as background information to help organize and think about the developmental stages that children go through as they mature from infancy to kindergarten.  All children do not experience the stages described below in precisely the same way, and children do not proceed through these stages on a strict timeline.  The stages described below are just intended to highlight some of the big themes that affect children’s developing sense of self.


Trust and Mistrust. The first stage in Erikson’s theory discuses the resolution of the issue Trust and Mistrust during the first eighteen months of a child’s life.  Being fed is one of the primary activities that allow children to build trust with their parents.  A trusting child knows that her parents generally respond in a consistent and fair way to her actions and even to her misbehavior.  If we always know that our needs are going to be met, then our lives are predictable.  But if we have no idea how someone will respond to us, we are less trusting and become more suspicious.  I have just described the two ends of the spectrum, but it is important to realize that Erikson did not intend for these stages to be thought about in an “all or nothing” way.  No parent, no matter how wonderful, can always respond to a child’s needs immediately and every parent, no matter how wonderful, gets frustrated sometimes.  What Erikson is focusing on here is the sum total of interactions over a period of time.  When children’s needs are more often then not met in a consistent and fair way, they are more likely to develop into trusting and hopeful people.

This idea, that we respond differently in environments where people react consistently and inconsistently, doesn’t only apply to babies – think about the best boss that you’ve ever had, as well as the most intimidating boss you’ve ever had.  A great boss is generally someone who wants to nurture and support you.  You know how she will respond when you do a great job, and you know how she will respond when you experience difficulty.  Even when she is not happy with your performance, you know she will be fair and that the issue will be resolved.  In contrast, the other boss that you pictured may have been somebody who flew off the handle without warning.  There were probably times when you expected her to react one way and were surprised when she did something different.  Some days, you walked into her office expecting to be yelled at and nothing bad happened.  Other days, you thought you were doing great work and ended up in trouble.  All of this uncertainty probably made you less comfortable, and you may have started acting differently – talking less during meetings, avoiding sharing your opinion – so that you didn’t risk setting her off.


Trust and Mistrust: Children conquer the first developmental crisis of psychosocial development by learning when to be trusting and when to be mistrustful.  Successful completion of this stage of development fosters hopefulness.


I gave you this example so that you can understand why Erikson says that children who adequately resolve this stage of trust and mistrust are hopeful.  If children believe the world around them is fairly predictable and that people are going to treat them kindly, they will hope for the best when in new situations.  But if their experiences teach them that the world is unpredictable and you can’t expect people to act fairly, they will become hopeless.  When they get older, hopeful people will be more likely to recognize that the intimidating boss has her own personality issues that affect her behavior and come up with ways to manage the situation, whereas people who have had more experiences that have made them feel hopeless will be more likely to give up and believe there is no way they can resolve the situation.  These early experiences color the way we respond to future events.  Hopeful children want to engage in activities outside the sphere of their parent’s world.  Playing nearby their parent facilitates this sort of trust, and also happens more frequently as a function of trust.

I also want to be sure to explain that this idea of trust doesn’t mean that healthy kids are always trusting or that their lives are always great.  Healthy kids are trusting when they should be – when they are with their parents or other trusted caregivers – and mistrustful when a stranger shows up at their house for the first time.  And bad things do happen in their lives, but they possess the skills to deal with them (and can acquire these skills through shared reading).


Autonomy and Shame/Doubt. Once children resolve this initial issue of trust, Erikson believed they went on to spend the next eighteen months of their lives learning about independence, and the feelings of shame and doubt that arise if the quest for independence does not go well.  When many parents think back on the biggest challenges they had to deal with when their children were between the ages of eighteen months and three years old, they focus on activities that their children were newly able to participate in because of the fine and gross motor developmental milestones their children had recently experienced, which made it easier for them to try to explore new places, put on clothes, use the bathroom, and eat independently.  Erikson thinks about exploring the world beyond parent as either a primary activity that can help children develop a sense of autonomy and a belief that they can do things independently or as a source of shame and doubt, although the other examples described above can also serve this same purpose.

We call this age the “Terrible Twos” precisely because children are learning to exercise their autonomy. Children of this age begin to insist on walking everywhere by themselves, getting dressed independently, and playing games according to their own rules.  This desire to do everything “my way” is natural, although it is just as natural for children to approach these new tasks with reluctance.  A big part of what determines how children progress through this stage, and their eventual approach to new tasks, is how parents generally respond to mistakes or struggles.  For instance, if parents are supportive of a degree of autonomy and encourage them to move beyond their immediate sphere this can result in positive growth.  Such support and feedback will help a child maintain her new sense of autonomy, even in the face of a setback such as going too far.  But if she ran away and was scolded for it, or told that big girls don’t move away from their parents, she would most likely feel ashamed and begin to doubt herself.  Some children are very eager to begin to do things independently and other children relish their parents’ support, so it is important to strike the right balance and respond in ways, from coaxing to praising, that help your unique child develop autonomy.  Because these early experiences help inform how people will respond to later events, helping your child develop autonomy when she is young makes it more likely that she will feel comfortable trying some reading tasks independently, but also asking for help when needed, as she gets older.


Autonomy and Shame/Doubt: Children conquer the second developmental crisis of psychosocial development by trying to complete tasks independently and seeing how others (primarily parents) respond to their successes and mistakes.  Successful completion of this stage of development fosters will.


Just like with the idea of trust, we don’t want children to be 100% autonomous.  There are times when it may be appropriate to be embarrassed by how we behave, and there are times when it is helpful and necessary to doubt our own abilities and seek the help of others.  Being autonomous does not mean that a child takes care of all of her needs by herself.  Instead, an autonomous child will recognize when she should ask for help (such as when a ball she is playing with rolls into the street) and when she can help herself (such as when the ball rolls near the next group of picnickers in the park).  But a parent’s goal at this stage of development is to provide their child with choices, and to strike the right balance between encouraging independence and letting their child know when she needs guidance.  Parents can strike this balance by thinking about what will keep their child safe and what will provide her with an appropriate amount of challenge, as illustrated by the example about retrieving her ball.

Providing this type of support has important implications for later development.  If she thinks she should only try to do things on her own when she can do them perfectly, then she won’t get practice dressing herself or venturing out to play, because she will always look to you to make those decisions.  If she is afraid of your judgment, then taking risks will seem scary.  Erikson talks about children who conquer this stage successfully as children with will.  We want children to recognize that part of becoming independent and making decisions is making mistakes, and that even independent people need to ask for help sometimes.  As a reader of this, you may already be realizing how each of these stages feeds into the next – children who develop a trusting relationship with their parents are well prepared to begin coping with this issue of autonomy.  As described earlier, these stages are not meant to be “all or nothing,” and children who have difficulty trusting people can still go on to become appropriately autonomous, although they – like everyone else – carry their past experiences with them into the next phase of development.


Initiative and Guilt.  Once children are able to act independently, they begin to take initiative by embarking on activities and following up on the tasks that they begin.  Between the ages of three and six years old, children exercise this new ability, developing what Erikson calls a sense of purpose.  And just as younger children who are often criticized for attempting to do things independently may end up feeling ashamed, children of this age who are not generally supported in their efforts may develop feelings of guilt.  In this stage, Erikson thinks about children’s interactions with the wider world around them, and their exploration of anything new, unfamiliar, or forbidden.  It might be that when you go to the grocery store with your son, he wants to pick out all of the fruits that you will use to make a fruit salad.  Or retrieve the milk that you need from the refrigerator case.  This doesn’t mean that you need to let him do whatever he wants in order to foster this sense of initiative.  Children are generally proud of these early attempts to demonstrate that they can serve a purpose and complete a task, unless they hear comments like, “Now you’ve caused me to lose time looking for you in the store! How could you do this?”  If you want to dissuade your son from moving away too far from you, parents can help him learn to engage in these behaviors more independently without bringing about a feeling of guilt, perhaps by saying something like, “Wow!  I’m so excited that you’re able to go on your own and find the milk we need for us.  But could you please make sure we can still see each other?” We expect children to engage in these types of purposeful behaviors not only at home, but also when they go to daycare or preschool.

At this age, they begin to receive messages about what they can and can’t do not only from parents, but also from teachers and other caregivers.  Often, children this age request like to show how ready they are to be grown-ups, whether that means dressing up or helping with errands.  Praising their purposeful efforts and creating opportunities for them to experience autonomy sets them up for a lifetime of goal-directed behavior.


Initiative and Guilt: Children conquer the third developmental crisis of psychosocial development by exploring new situations or tasks, and seeing how others (primarily parents) respond to their successes and mistakes.  Successful completion of this stage of development fosters purpose.


Industry and Inferiority.  Preschool and Kindergarten age children and beyond, spend several years developing a sense of industry and learning to keep feelings of inferiority at bay.  Erikson explains that children who develop a healthy amount of industry experience feelings of competence.  Again, as a reader, you can probably see how natural it is for each of the positive attributes associated with these stages to feed into the next, as well as how natural it is for each of the negative attributes to do the same.  A child was is relatively trusting will attempt more things independently, and then develop a sense of purpose that allows her to flourish as they grow up by eagerly approaching new tasks, confidently asking parents, caretakers and their teachers for help when needed, and staying enthusiastic in the face of setbacks.

Although children’s progress through the first two stages in this model is heavily dependent on a child’s parents and caretakers and their reactions, it is in the third stage that the opinions of others begin to color a child’s thinking.  But it is not until this fourth stage of development that the balance of power really shifts.  Now, once a child is in preschool and kindergarten, he spends much of his day with his teachers and peers.  Many of the consequential tasks are the ones he engages in occur during school.  So, it stands to reason that he learns to develop persistent, industrious behaviors in the preschool setting.  And if he can’t complete what he wanted to and feels that he doesn’t compare well against other students, he may go on to develop feelings of inferiority in this setting as well.


Industry and Inferiority: Children conquer the fourth developmental crisis of psychosocial development by working on tasks that often are completed over long periods of time, and seeing how others (including parents, teachers, and peers) respond to their successes and mistakes.  Successful completion of this stage of development fosters competence


How Parents Foster This Growing Sense of Self

Helping children become more independent is challenging because it requires really separating a parent’s own needs and desires from those of their child.  This can be difficult at each of the stages discussed above for many different reasons.  The basis for trust is providing responsive and consistent caregiving, which means responding to children in the same way. Once parents have established a trusting relationship with their child, supporting the development of autonomy can be a big challenge.  This is one of the skills that requires a great deal of scaffolding, because parents are trying to preserve your child’s pride in her independence at the same time that you are helping her recognize that leaving the house or wandering off in a public place might put the child at risk.  The type of scaffolding required in these situations often takes the form of giving praise, along with offering a forced choice.  For example, you might say, “I like that you want to play outside. Do you want to play near the slide or the climbing structure?”  Because a parent’s goal is to increase their child’s capacity for independence, just telling them where to play– although definitely the faster option – does not give her the same opportunity to feel capable.


Forced choice: Presenting someone with two acceptable options for resolving a situation and allowing him to choose between them, with the goal of eliciting appropriate behavior while allowing that person to maintain a feeling of independence


As children begin to develop independent interests and to take initiative, parents can continue to encourage growth by praising this newfound sense of purpose and supporting their child’s efforts.  When something sparks her interest – whether it is climbing up a hill or practicing her bike-riding skills – encourage these efforts.  Parents can also model this same behavior for their child by talking about times that they have acted with purpose and followed up on something that excited them – signing up for a boot camp training program, travelling to a new region, or crossing the street by themselves as a child.  At this age, children are learning to become an active and engaged learner, so showing them all of the different ways one can maintain these purposeful behaviors helps sets a good example.

This focus on learning becomes even more pronounced during preschool and beyond. As children begin to focus much of their energy on completing tasks, and begin to derive feelings of competence from doing good work, parents can help their children learn to set long-term goals and break them down into manageable tasks.  For instance, if a child wants to walk over to a friend’s house, parents can walk with them initially and then over time walk behind them.  By setting these daily goals, children will have a chance to feel competent each day, when they meet their goals.

When children reach their goals, parents will want to reward their efforts and the fact that they have met the goal, but not in a way that will overshadow their child’s own initial interest in completing the project for its own sake. It is important to remember that children are naturally inclined to seek out experiences that make them feel competent.  Unless people convince their children that they cannot be an independent and autonomous person over time children will not feel good about themselves.  By setting realistic goals and praising their effort (that is, the work towards the goal), parents can foster feelings of competence even when something is daunting or challenging.


Consider the Zone of Proximal Development. The idea behind the Zone of Proximal Development is that the answer to the question “What is this child capable of?” is not as straightforward as we think.  If you are playing a spelling game with your child and ask him to spell the word HOT, he may spell it correctly with no assistance at all.  But then, when you ask him to spell the word SHOT, he pauses.  If you stopped the interaction right there, we might say that your son was not yet capable of spelling the word shot.  But, if you then sounded the word out for him slowly (SSSHH-OH-T), you might see recognition dawn on his face.  “Oh, I know how to spell that!  S-H-O-T!”  Now we know that, with guidance, he is able to spell that new word.  Furthermore, if you then asked him to spell SHUT, he might pause again.  But instead of sounding this word out for him as well, you might merely suggest that he sound the word out, just like you did before.  And again, with your hint, he might be able to spell a word that had seemed beyond his ability level.  The zone, in this example, includes your son’s independent ability to spell the word HOT and his ability, with help, to spell the word SHUT.  We know that children are capable of surprising us, and that with just a small push, can often achieve things we thought were out of their grasp.  We also know that the clues we give them can actually help them learn.  Because, in the example above, you suggested that your son sound out new words, you have now shifted his zone of proximal development.  Words like SHUT and SHOT are now words he can spell independently, and the words he will need help with will become more complex.

The scaffolding, parents provide to their child throughout their various interactions with them ensure that he continues to build a healthy sense of self, regardless of what stage of development he is currently in.  If parents think about helping their child in this way, whether you are helping with their desire to go to the other side of the store to retrieve the milk from the refrigerator container or with spelling a new word, interactions through scaffolding are more likely to build feelings of hope, will, purpose, and competence.


Definition Zone of Proximal Development: The area of growth and change that exists between Point A, what a child can do independently, and Point B, what a child can do with the assistance of a more capable peer or adult.  Providing experiences within this zone allows children to enhance their learning capacities.


Allow age-appropriate independence. Because all of these developmental stages are interconnected, they work together to help children build what we’ve been calling a sense of self.  And what that really means is that children, over time, learn who they are and what they are capable of doing.  As a parent, they have a better sense than anyone else of what their child is capable of, and where his zone of proximal development begins and ends.  Using this knowledge to help their children tackle the next skill in a trajectory – whether that means learning to tie his shoes, walk across the store, or have a sleepover – helps this sense of self flourish.





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Table 1. Growing Sense of Self

Age Stage Attitude
0 – 18 months Trust and Mistrust People take good care of me.  I have hope for the world and the future.
18 – 36 months Autonomy and Shame/Doubt I take good care of myself, and other people are proud of me.  I have the will to succeed.
3 – 6 years Initiative and Guilt I have good ideas, and people are proud of what I do.  I have a purpose in this world.
6 – 12 years Industry and Inferiority I am good at what I do, and people are proud of my accomplishments.  I am competent.



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