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Child Development Theory: Middle Childhood
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Identity and Self-Esteem

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

During middle childhood, children's personal identity develops so as to become more complex, multi-faceted and abstract in nature. Children stop thinking of themselves solely as defined by singular and concrete attributes and comparisons

  • "I'm a boy"
  • "I have yellow hair"
  • "I'm bigger than my baby sister"

and start to describe themselves more according to their perceived personality characteristics and psychological qualities

  • "I'm funny"
  • "I like to make other people laugh"
  • "I like to help people."

which happen to be more abstract in nature, referring to qualities and interactions rather than to things. Furthermore, children also become able to differentiate and describe their positive qualities and their less desirable qualities

  • "I'm pretty good at reading"
  • "I'm not very good at baseball and basketball"

As children develop a more complex picture of who they are and what they are capable of, they start to compare themselves to other people (e.g., peers, caregivers, siblings, other people in the community) across a wide variety of traits and characteristics such as appearance, intelligence, physical abilities, artistic abilities, etc. A result of this growing complexity of self and other description is that children start to view themselves as more or less capable within different domains of accomplishment (academic, social, athletic, appearance, etc.). Their self-esteem - reflecting their feelings of personal worthiness - also starts to vary across these domains, with the result that children may see themselves as very capable in some areas but not in others. For example, a child might say "I'm better at art than Bobby, but he is a much better runner than I am!"

Children's overall self-esteem may fluctuate or decrease as they start this process of social comparison in earnest. However, with proper caregiver support and guidance, children's self-esteem will generally rise again during this period as children find and focus on their strengths, address their weaknesses, and recognize that their general acceptability to those they depend upon does not itself depend on their becoming perfect people. Of course, this process of self-esteem regulation does not happen for everyone, and some children will go on to develop quite negative self-images at this time.

Self-esteem is a vitally important topic for parents to know about. We describe self-esteem in great detail in our Nurturing Children's Self-Esteem document which we hope you will read.

It's especially important that parents, teachers and other concerned adults in children's lives look out for any challenges or problems that may negatively impact the development of their overall self-image and self-esteem and do what they can to help address those problems early on so that they do not contribute to children's more permanently low self-esteem. It's important to communicate to children that they are loved and that there are many ways to be successful in life, so that they can internalize this understanding and use it as a refuge in the event they conclude they are not good at anything important. Providing the right amount of support is a delicate balancing act, however. Providing too much help to children strips them of opportunities to recover from failure resiliently on their own, to gain practice at coping with adversity, and to develop valuable problem-solving skills such as the willingness to persevere.

Given a balanced offering of adult guidance and challenging experiences, children generally will learn that achievement and success are dependent not only on innate abilities, but also on their efforts and other environmental factors such as the support of others. Ideally, children will come to understand that there are several different ingredients for success, among them: 1) basic skill or ability, 2) effort, 3) practice and perseverance, 4) maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude, and 5) asking for help when necessary.

As children go through the process of identifying challenging personal projects and working them through, they will hopefully also come to understand that they have some degree of control over their own self-esteem. While it will always feel good to please others, resulting in their genuine approval, it is also possible to set one's own goals, and find pleasure and a feeling of great accomplishment in meeting them. The self-esteem boost children are able to derive from learning to set and then accomplish personal goals is further enhanced as children start to compare their present abilities against memories of what they used to be able to accomplish as more limited, younger children.

Please refer to our Nurturing Children's Self-Esteem document for further information on this important topic.