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Description and Development of a Child’s Sense of Self

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By Tobster
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“Self” was defined by Burns 1980 as a “set of attitudes a person holds towards himself.” To assess what stage children develop a sense of self, Lewis and Brooks Gunn (1979) conducted a study whereby babies had red dye put on their nose and put in front of a mirror at 9 and 15 months respectively. At 9 months, the baby showed no awareness of it having red dye on themselves, and therefore no self-awareness. However, at 15 months, the baby made attempts to remove the dye, showing that it had developed a sense of self. It was further shown in this study that babies, at the age of 2, babies can distinguish themselves in photos whereas at 3 months they prefer to look at videos rather than themselves (Berk 2006).
Also, when discussing a child’s development of sense of self, it is important to relate it to the Theory of Mind (ToM). This is the ability to understand the fact that others have different beliefs to your own, and the ability to reason with them, and perhaps predict what actions they’ll make, and for what reason. Baron-Cohen et al (1985) researched into ToM, and aimed to find out if ToM is present in every child and discover whether it develops at the same rate. They used typically and atypically developing children, 61 in total, divided into 3 groups, normally developing, autistic, and downs syndrome. There were 20 autistic children, 14 children with downs syndrome, and 27 normally developing children. The children were then told a story about two dolls, named Sally and Anne. Once it was clear the children understood the nature of the task, Anne moved the marble from the basket it was previously in to a box while Sally was away. The participants were then asked where Sally will look for the marble, where it is, and where it was. These were belief, reality, and memory questions, in that order. If the children say Sally’s basket, they have ToM. They found that all the participants in all three groups answered the “reality” and “memory” question correctly, however the “belief” question wasn’t so well answered by some. While 86% of downs syndrome children and 85% of normally developing children answered this correctly, only 20% of autistic children did. This suggests they struggle to see things from other people’s point of view, which could perhaps account for their often poor social skills.
However, the fact that this study involves dolls and not real people was an issue for some psychologists, who questioned the ecological validity of the experiment. On the other hand, Leslie and Frith replicated this study using real people, countering this argument, and showing that it can be an accurate representation into ToM. Also, the fact it used dolls could hint at the idea of potential gender bias, as girls are more typically associated and could perhaps relate more to dolls, where boys aren’t normally interested in them. This could cause them to lose interest in the experiment, especially at the young age they are at. The language used in the experiment was also brought into question, as Frith found in 2001 that language has a strong correlation with false belief tasks, so the words used must be carefully selected to avoid the idea of leading questions etc. particularly among young children, who are easily influenced. In terms of the sample size used, it wasn’t the same across the three different groups, which could be perceived as unreliable, and it could be argued that it should have been capped at 14. However, the fact it was a controlled study whereby the children were matched with the mental ages as opposed to actual ages, to ensure it was down to their lack of social understanding and not their general intelligence, should any differences be found. Also, the overall sample size, being 61, is still relatively low in terms of the wider population, so it’s difficult to generalise with such a small sample size. Contrastingly, the fact the experiment has been replicated in 7 different countries where the same sort of results were generated is positive in terms of the validity of the initial study mentioned, although it was noted that development of ToM was slower in collectivist cultures. It has also been proposed by Leslie (1994) that pretend play plays an important role in the latter development of ToM, so if children have been exposed to more or less of that, that can have an effect on the performance of the child. Moreover, despite the fact it was proposed ToM developed at 2 years old, it was found in a metaanalysis done by Wellman that it doesn’t develop until around 4 years, contradicting the findings mentioned previously. In addition, as this study is centred on children, parental consent is always a key feature of the ethicality of the study, and is important the parents give informed consent for their child to take part. This is an issue however as if the parents feel the need to pull their child out of the study at any time they can do so, which could affect the whole study. Consent is particularly important in this experiment as it involves two atypically developing groups, so they may be slightly more vulnerable to certain things than normally developing children. Researchers in this study also need to balance the demands of the parents and their children, which can be difficult at times.

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