It always angers me when I read advertisements for infant stimulation products which promise to raise the baby’s self esteem. Infants don’t really have a self to esteem. The self is a mental construction which is built up in the course of maturation and does not reach completion until adolescence with the attainment of a sense of personal identity. Thereafter the self continues to be reconstructed in response to life circumstance and aging.
Sociologist George Herbert Mead (Mead 1934) argued that the self is constructed out of the “reflected appraisal of others.” He called it a “looking glass self.” That is to say, our sense of self is, in part at least, the result of how others respond to us. Even the infant, who does not clearly distinguish between self and others, has an intuitive sense of self. This intuitive self derives in part from the “cuteness factor,” nature’s way of ensuring that adults smile at infants and young children. These smiles, and other positive reactions, give the infant a sense of acceptance and well being, a sense of trust that, “the world is a safe place where my needs will be met.”
It is only when the child acquires language and begins to use the pronouns of “I” and “me” that the self begins to be constructed in a more conscious way. But this new verbal self builds upon the intuitive self that came before it. That is why it is so important to cuddle, smile and talk sweetly to the infant. And none of that comes from infant stimulation programs. It is important to emphasize that distinguishing between self and the world is an ongoing process. For example, when he was four, one my sons told me that he had a toothache. I asked him if it was really hurting and he replied, “Yes, can’t you feel it.”
It should be said that self esteem is often misunderstood as “feeling good about yourself.” With this idea in mind some parents go to great lengths to avoid giving the child any bad feelings. To be sure we should avoid making a child feel badly for no reason. But we are all human; we make mistakes, say the wrong thing, do the bad thing and hurt others in the process. When a child does something of the kind it is important to say something like, “That was not a nice thing to do or to say, and it made me feel bad.” Guilt is a healthy emotion and can help us to be more thoughtful in our social interactions.
In the end, the most important contributor to self esteem is the feeling of security, of being very important to another person who cares deeply about you. With that feeling of security, the child is able to cope with much that life has to offer. Without it, the child is vulnerable to all of life’s vicissitudes. Self esteem, in this sense, can never by learned from infant stimulation programs. It can only come from the loving care of committed and nurturing parents.
By Professor David Elkind, renowned child psychologist David Elkind Ph.D. shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive, and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood and how you can support your child’s healthy development every step of the way.