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How Do Children Grow a Sense of Self?

Gym-boyWe often hear people and organizations say they develop children’s self esteem. I’d like to believe that children play a very important role in creating their own self-image. The more opportunities they have to develop new abilities and skills, the more their “self-talk” (also called metacognition, or thinking about thinking) helps them confirm their growing self. It’s such a treat to hear very young children tell their parents “now that they’re able to perform a certain skill they can move into the next “big kids” class”. They understand it as an accomplishment on their part and one they achieved because they consistently tried their best. They are able to see and get a sense of themselves as changing and growing. This will become a feeling of accomplishment they will want to work hard to be able to feel again and again.

Self-concept is formed from many sources. Early self-concept comes almost as a mirror reflection, regarding oneself through the eyes of people who surround us. So, for a young child, when her parents or teachers show her their love, caring and approval of her and her actions, she internalizes the feeling that she is a person capable of inspiring love and admiration. They grow to believe that they are lovable and capable. The next time they have the opportunity to try a new skill or activity they will be more comfortable doing so. Each success building toward the next.

When important adults convey the reverse message the opposite effect on self-esteem is planted.

Young children quickly absorb the messages given them; without evaluating the rightness or wrongness of the message.

Throughout their childhood they will receive messages from friends, family, coaches and teachers. They tend to accept the messages that agree with the self-concept they have already formed, and ignore the feedback that is inconsistent with their self-image. You can see why the early gift of believing in their own innate goodness and sense of accomplishment is so important.

For the most part this is a process that kids handle themselves, but there are ways the adults in their lives can help.

It really doesn’t have to be over the top ceremonies that acknowledge new skills. Sometimes simply displaying pictures of the first day of class or celebrating the first use of a new skill, helps point out the family’s respect for growth.

Opportunities to use their talents—“Sarah can tie her own shoes, watch”—lets children see you recognize their growth.

Remember, they need a chance to realize, “Hey! I’m growing up, I can do that.”

Shauna Swank-Sahlein

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