How do we acquire self-concept and when does it begin to go wrong?


When babies are born, they are the center of their universe.  Everything revolves around them. This world view operates until they are 40 or so in some cases, but generally begins to shift to understanding the feelings of others starting at around age 4.  If they are fortunate when they are infants, they are fed when they are hungry, cleaned when needed, cuddled at every opportunity. When this happens, the child “learns” in a non-verbal but very deep way, that the world is a good place where they can develop a sense of trust that all will be well with them.


If, on the other hand, the child is unfortunate enough to be born into a hostile environment – lack of, or inconsistent nourishment, care, love, or has a medical condition that requires painful (even if necessary) procedures, then the child will develop the sense that the world is a place where they will expect to experience pain and suffering.  Because of inconsistencies in how they are treated, they will come to develop a sense of uncertainty and mistrust (again at a non-verbal but very deep level).


Our first learning comes about through both touch, and sound.  Although children have the capacity to learn a language, they do not come into a world with one ready-made.  Instead they begin by making sense of frequently repeated words such as their name.  They mimic the sounds they hear (which is why a child born in China has a different rhythm to early babbling than does a child born in England).  By 7 months of age, or so, most children will respond to their name.


Between 2 and 3, most children will begin to understand that there are differences (anatomical) between boys and girls, and begin to identify themselves as one or the other based on their own anatomy, and their parents’ comments.  (Not going to get into the whole transgender controversy here, including the recent observation that this might well be primarily an autistic fixation).


Sometimes parent confirmation is obvious as, for example, parents telling their little boy that “boys don’t cry.  You’ll be ok”, but other indicators can be quite subtle.    When we first see a new baby, we ask what their sex is, and if told she is a littler girl, we may respond “Oh, what a beautiful little baby” (even if we think they look like a little cabbage) in a much higher vocal pitch than if we are told he is a boy.


By the time a child has reached pre-school or kindergarten age, s/he has a firm sense of who she is in terms of sex, and who she is as a separate person (I am Tiffany, not Rachel).  If they have brothers and sisters, they may also have a picture of what they can and cannot do.  They cannot read (like their older sibling can) or they may run faster than a younger sibling.  They do not yet have the cognitive ability to understand that what is true at 5 is not necessary true at 6 or 10 or 20, and frequently mistake a developmental ability as a fixed ability.

When important people in our lives tell us things about ourselves often enough and strongly enough,   up to a certain age at any rate, we believe that these things are true.  In an interesting piece of research 3-year-old children were asked to find a sticker hidden under a red cup or a yellow cup.  The children watched while the teacher placed  the sticker under the red or the yellow cup.  In one group the teacher deliberately mislabelled the cup where the sticker was by putting an arrow on top of the wrong cup.  In the other group the teacher told the children that the sticker was under the wrong cup.  In the first case, the children figured out quickly that the sign was wrong, and correctly turned over the right cup.  However, in the second group, even after repeated trials, more than half of the children continued to believe what the teacher said and selected the wrong cup even though they had seen where the sticker was placed.


The unfortunate thing is that children continue to believe, for a long, long time, things they were told about themselves even if they weren’t  true.  “You’re so stupid” when it wasn’t the child’s stupidity that was the problem but the parent’s frustration or unreasonable expectation; “You’re not as pretty as your sister” at an age where nothing seems to be in the right proportions; ”Don’t be so lazy” when the child is reluctant to do an unpleasant task.


If teachers in the primary grades continue to label a child (Remember reading groups – bluebirds, cardinals and crows?  Guess who was in the crow group?) then that child will know for a truth, that this is what s/he or he is.  Some children will believe the label and diagnosis but if they have another skill (good athletic ability, artistic or musical talents for example) may be only somewhat negatively impacted since they have positive attributes to build their self-concept.   However, many others generalize the supposed lack of ability in one area to their entire person. “ I am stupid.  I can’t learn anything so it isn’t even worth putting effort into trying to do something that I can’t do!”


We all have some things that we do well and things that we do less well.  A healthy self-concept does NOT mean that you think you are great at everything.  It DOES mean that you are able to view yourself realistically.  And if you don’t?  Then here are 5 critical questions you want to ask yourself:


  1. Who first told me that I wasn’t good at X?
  2. Why did I think that this was true?
  3. Did this belief come to define my school life or my relationships with my peers?
  4. Do I let it continue to define me today?
  5. Do I want to change?


If the answer to question 5 is “yes” then I have a program that will assist you in making those changes.  Contact me for details.