A Unique Child: Child Development - Being 'me'

Ruth Thomson
Monday, April 7, 2014

Self-awareness is not something we are born with, but an understanding that grows over time. Crucially, says Maria Robinson, it relies on a baby's experience of interacting with others

A recent craze that seems to have gripped some people is that of taking 'selfies' — that is, a photograph of themselves. It is taken for granted that anyone who does this will know who they are - and, of course, this seems so obvious. However, recognising a picture of ourselves as us is not something that just happens, but something that develops over time.

It is around 16 to 18 to months that we seem to be able to recognise that it is 'me' in a mirror and begin to identify ourselves in a photo. In addition, being 'self-aware' is not just this recognition; this wonderful milestone begins a process that is much deeper than just recognising the physical self.

We begin to understand our gender and also our reality as an independent being who can purposefully act on something, influencing others as well as aspects of the environment around us. We begin to recognise similarities between ourselves and others and sense - again over time - that others can be the same but also different from us.

As time passes, so does our ability to have some insight into who we are. In our teenage years, we begin to describe ourselves in more abstract terms — outlining some belief systems, for example.

It is a wonderful gift to humans that we can, throughout our lifespan, begin to understand more and more about what 'makes us tick' and ultimately gain insight into our own motivations, attitudes and beliefs, with the possibility of change if we are locked into less positive aspects of our behaviour. All this from knowing who we are in a mirror.


So this miracle of self-awareness, this knowing that I am a 'me', is not a given, but something that relies and builds on a co-ordination of all aspects of development from the moment of birth. I recommend reading Allan Schore's beautiful description of the interplay between the gaze of an infant and their mother: how the mutual gazing that is so much a part of the early days and weeks of an infant's life impacts on both the infant's feelings and the burgeoning neural pathways in its brain.

A baby's limited visual system -which almost precludes them from looking anywhere other than straight ahead in those early weeks - and the familiarity of the mother's smell and taste mean that baby is fascinated by their mother and gazes at her. This is not just 'looking' but a fundamental part, I believe, of the beginning of knowing that it is a 'me'.

We are seen by our mothers and so we begin to understand that we exist. To help explain what I mean, consider whether you have ever been ignored by staff in a shop or at a bar. You might have found yourself thinking, 'Am I invisible here?' and getting quite cross in the process. We need to feel that we are seen, noticed, cared for and thought about because this is all part of self-esteem and awareness. We need to feel we matter.

In those early weeks, many mothers feel a strong urge to simply be with their babies and the baby's needs ensure that this happens through the frequency of feeds and general care. This time also includes holding, and babies are often stroked, patted, bounced, swung around and placed in various positions - all contributing to a powerful sensory experience, not least of which is the emotional context.

We begin to know our bodies through this extensive touching, handling and holding and this experience is accompanied by sounds and smells. We are also reflected in the gaze of our parents. Our sense of touch is profoundly intertwined with our emotions; how we react to touch can often tell something about our early experiences, for example. Who we are is not just a product of our DNA, but very much a product of our experiences.


As we get a little older — around three months — we begin to look around a little more, our movements are a little more purposeful and we can explore our environments whatever they are. We begin to learn the very basics of cause and effect through play and most importantly, and perhaps primarily, through imitation. This powerful tool in the armoury of human development allows our understanding of ourselves and others to grow.

In the early months of life, the imitation 'traffic' is mainly one way. Parents, siblings and others will copy a child's facial expressions, exaggerate them and so 'feed' them back to the child. Just watch someone talking to a baby and notice how mobile their faces are as they respond to the baby's smiles, frowns and so on.

They also help to alter the baby's mood - for example, from a sad face to a smiling one with all the accompanying bodily sensations. At around seven to eight months, things change as the baby begins to imitate what the adults are doing, and so waving and reaching out become part of a growing repertoire of actions. Babies are learning that: I do this, you do this, you do this and I can do it too so we can do it. In other words, there is a me and a you.

Babies are also usually able to sit fairly steadily, allowing them to explore their surroundings more, literally reaching out to what attracts them, mouthing, tasting and touching, so that they begin to appreciate what something feels like. After, all to touch is also to feel.

Another milestone is understanding that something out of sight still exists. So the beginnings of an abstract sense of things being permanent begins - and it is just a beginning. Think about how excited four-year-olds can be when playing hide-and-seek and their joy when finding the other children and also, more seriously, the desolation of separation when a child is left and the happiness felt when the parent(s) return. Children have to learn that parents will return and this takes time, but this is another topic.


To be self-aware, then, is a steady progression from physical and emotional experiences to an appreciation that we each have a body that is ours. Before we recognise ourselves in a mirror, parents have often instinctively played the 'Where is your ...?' game, helping the child identify eyes, ears, tummy and so on, and slowly we work out that we have a body that is made up of different parts.

I sometimes wonder if this is the source of that rather unkind phrase 'pull yourself together'. This is in fact what we are unconsciously doing in our early months and years. Incidentally, such play is yet another example of how play and playful experiences are so crucial to all aspects of development throughout the early years.

We can see, therefore, that being self-aware is an integral part of being an independent human, but also that it is so dependent on the love and care of the parent(s)/carers.

We need to be seen before we can see others, we need to feel we matter before we can care about others, and we need to experience before we can learn, because out of experience comes our ability to think and organise our thoughts.

Crucially, it allows us to know who we are in the world and how we can influence our own behaviour, as well as wanting to influence the behaviour of others.


The Feeling Child: laying the foundations of confidence and resilience by Maria Robinson (Routledge, £16.99) considers the impact of a child's emotional development on their capacity to learn and respond to different people and situations. Written in a clear and accessible style, the book shows how practitioners can use this knowledge to provide learning experiences that nourish children's thinking, creative skills and well-being. See www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415521222.

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