Sense of self, very simply put, is what you think of yourself. Your child’s sense of self starts developing at birth. The foundation of your child’s sense of self is generally quite set by the time they turn 6 years old. How your child perceives themselves all depends on their first few years of life. It depends on you (like we didn’t have enough pressure to deal with as parents). Let’s start by asking ourselves some questions…
How do we want our kids to see themselves?
When I had my first child, Miika, I thought sense of self was just a milestone. He ticked the box when he could recognise himself in a mirror. Although the mirror test is very interesting (have a look here), sense of self is much more than what Miiks sees in the mirror as “ME”. Sense of self is not just a milestone. It is a major part of my child’s development that will grow and evolve throughout life. As a parent, I need to take responsibility for my child’s sense of self. I can help my child’s sense of self develop and change.
Personally, this is what I want for my kids
Miiks and Wren, love your physical appearance. Take pride in being the best that you can be. Love what you put into your bodies and be healthy.
I want you to understand that everybody has different talents and yours are unique to you. Love and appreciate your talents.
Like whatever you like; not what everybody else likes or what we want you to like.
Know that I’m proud of you for being yourselves and working at bettering yourselves for your own benefit.
Next question… How do WE see ourselves?
This is a really hard question. I’m anticipating that lots of us would actually find it a tough question to honestly answer for ourselves. But it is a question we need to answer. How we see ourselves will influence how our children see themselves. So maybe ask yourself, what do you think you are like? How do you think you look? What are your inner workings?
And then… Why do we see ourselves like this?
Our sense of self is shaped by all the important people we have come across throughout our lives: our parents, siblings, cousins, friends, teachers, coaches and our society and culture. We see ourselves the way we do because of them. Your sense of self is YOUR view of yourself, and it is based in what others have told you again and again. Good or bad!
Knowing that other people will have an influence on how my children will see themselves is a tough reality. If a child doesn’t know who he or she is, it’s easy to just be what other people want them to be. I know the world will tell my kids you are not good enough, you’re different so you are weird, and you can’t like that because it’s not for girls/boys. Before they have to face a world and society that is prescriptive and demands my children to conform, I want them to know that according to their mom, I am proud of them for who they are and I am always here to help them grow into better people. I want to be the biggest supporter of my children’s sense of self. So they face that world secure in who they are before anyone tells them who they should or shouldn’t be.
So how can you as a parent help your child develop and grow their sense of selves?
ONE: Mirror, mirror on the wall
How do we expect our children to love themselves if they don’t know themselves? How can we expect them to act appropriately if they’ve never witnessed their own behaviours, but only seen the behaviour of others?
Mirrors should be everywhere in your house because they allow children to get to know and see themselves. Even infants are fascinated by mirrors. You can have mirrors next to or above your newborn when playing and in the car. Place full length mirrors in the bedroom (for dressing and grooming), as well as in the play area for general exploring and insight into themselves. Playing with toys in front of a mirror helps your child view themselves through the eyes of others.
Even though I’m all about our kids being themselves, we still need to equip them with the tools to actually function in society. A big part of being a good human is being able to identify your own and others’ emotions. While the expression and reading of emotions comes more easily to some children, the practice of this is necessary for most of us. Being able to read someone else’s emotions and then responding appropriately can be mastered by actually practicing emotions in the mirror.
TWO: Head, shoulders, knees and toes
Children are naturally comfortable with and curious about their bodies. Yet, as our children go in the world, they are told to cover up their flaws and the things that make them unique. What are we trying to tell our kids? You aren’t allowed to explore and see your body? You should be embarrassed about yourself?
Your child’s body is the physical fibre of their being. All our body parts play a role in the functioning of us, thus they are all equally important and all deserve to be called by their appropriate names. They also all need to be investigated with the same level of importance and respect. Your child can see most of their body without having to look in the mirror. Encourage them to look at themselves in a full-length mirror so they can get to know how their body looks and works all together.
Even though being able to identify feeling proud only comes at about 3 years of age, all children feel it. It is one of the most powerful tools we as parents can use to make kids feel worthy and like they belong. There are two really easy ways to get our kids to reap the benefits of feeling proud.
First, praise your child when it is deserved! Reward them for a new accomplishment or a worthy effort. Show them that we are paying attention. We can’t just say well done to something not deserving without even looking up as this is actually counterproductive.
Secondly, make routine something to be proud about. Routine is often marketed towards parents for making a parent’s life easier. And this might very well be true, but surprisingly (at least to me) routine can make your child feel proud. Not only does it instil a great sense of security in your child, it also makes them take pride in the fact that they know what’s coming next.
FOUR: Safe spaces to be me
Basically, your child needs to feel safe and secure in all the physical environments you expose them too. Spaces that aren’t home, such as a friend/family member’s house or school, are made safe by you as a parent being there and expressing via body language or verbally that you feel comfortable.
Home and school should be similar in these ways:
- There should always a person that your child trusts nearby.
- Spaces should be consistent and purposeful
- Spaces should be physically safe and preferably clean.
And then I have to mention the not physical but emotional side to an environment. Fighting and screaming and stress all impact your child negatively. Having said that, I really really want to STRESS (haha) how incredibly important physical touch and seeing love is for your child. Show your children you love them, and show them you love your spouse.
Mainly, you want to expose your child to an environment that is discovery-friendly. A place that is anxiety-free. An environment where they have the opportunity to lose themselves, ponder and muse and find new passions.
FIVE: Your attitude is welcome
I really struggled with this post. There’s so much research and information out there, and the implications differed from person to person. I wanted to share my sense of self story. But I’m still on that journey of learning who I am and being secure in that. I value the fact that at this point in my life I’m blatantly honest with myself. This means I am only now starting to identify my own discomforts, trying to find the root of it, deciding whether it’s justified or not and then moving forward with a plan. I am trying to learn from my own experiences and mistakes as a parent. I found that there are so many resources for parents to help us learn – reading this has really helped me!
If you read ….. You’ll find a whole list of suggestions regarding the importance of your attitude on your child’s sense of self. Personally my attitude towards my children and their sense of selves is very strong and protective. I want to protect them from a world that doesn’t really let any of us be ourselves completely. I don’t want Miika playing with kids whose parents are close-minded (sue me!) Parenting is hard enough and I don’t want on top of everything have to explain someone else’s flawed views to my children. Miika and Wren’s emotional wellbeing and sense of selves have jumped to the top of my priority list.