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Nurturing Self-Awareness in Children

Tips to encourage an essential social, emotional skill.

Key points

  • Children as young as infants can begin developing self-awareness.
  • By the end of toddlerhood, most children show awareness of an ‘external’ self.
  • Parents can support their young child as they begin their social-emotional learning and keep it growing across developmental stages.
  • Reading is a powerful way to connect with children, and it also teaches self-awareness.

Sam was "helping with the dishes," loading the dishwasher soap dispenser, when his mother casually asked what he thought his friend Will might like for a birthday present. Sam was excited to give Will his gift at his upcoming in-person party. Sam, like most 4-year-olds, thought about a version of what he would wish for.

When and how do children learn to use their own experience to make inferences about the experiences, and needs, of others—the essential platform for self-awareness? Although adults often think the use of pronouns announces self-awareness, children as young as infants can begin developing this essential social-emotional skill. Every game of peek-a-boo or rendition of So Big helps get children started on this crucial path, especially when played with an adult who thinks they are just terrific (videos don’t work). Although there is no self-awareness brain center, the infant’s mind is equipped to develop this skill, as it is essential to becoming a contributing member of family and community.

The knowledge that infants are not their parents’ carbon copy starts early. While 2-month-olds look at the adult’s finger when the parents want to direct their baby’s attention to something, 3- to 4-month-olds have learned to look to where the finger actually points—both seeds of shared attention and the idea that you and I are different from one another. Nine-month-olds don’t need a finger to point out what is of interest to familiar adults, and by 15 months, they take interest in things drawing the attention of even unfamiliar adults. Eighteen-month-olds are so aware of the needs of others, they will often offer help or comfort to distressed peers or adults.

By the end of toddlerhood, most children show awareness of an external self (different from the internal one they know so well), which they can now use to understand how others perceive them. They know by then whether others think of them as loveable or as a pain in the neck.

Given that children begin developing self-awareness skills so early in life, here are four activities parents can do with their young children to take advantage of their social-emotional learning and keep it growing across developmental stages:

  1. When your young child looks shy or embarrassed in front of a mirror, ask them what they are feeling or what bothers them. Ask them gently. Listen carefully. Don’t argue. Then say what you see, positively supporting who they are, inside and out. This gives them your permission to keep exploring who they feel—and know—they are becoming.
  2. Practice and encourage self-reflection early on. Ask your child about their day—when it was happy and when it wasn’t so happy. Listen carefully and repeat back to them what you hear, ask if you got it right, and tell them you are glad that they shared this with you. It’s okay to have bad, good, boring, and different days and be aware of when they are having which.
  3. Help label emotions. Take every chance to label the emotions that both you and your child are having. This can be done through reading together or just during casual conversation. Even though the path to self-awareness begins early, language comes along just in time to help children start to learn from what they themselves are feeling—self-awareness at the core.
  4. Read together. Reading with your child is a powerful way to connect with children, and to teach self-awareness, help them accurately recognize their own emotions, thoughts, and values, and then understand how they are influenced by them. Books also support young children as they develop self-confidence and efficacy and recognize their strengths, helping to lead to a well-grounded sense of confidence and a growth mindset.

Here are a few of The Goddard School’s favorite books to help teach self-awareness in young children:

  • “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds
  • “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont and illustrated by David Catrow
  • “Red, a Crayon’s Story” by Michael Hall
  • “The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes” by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein
  • “The Monster Who Lost His Mean” by Tiffany Strelitz Haber and illustrated by Kirstie Edmunds

By the way, Sam suggested a 3-D polar puzzle he’d been coveting for months.


Pruett, Kyle, “Me, Myself, and I”; How children build their sense of self from 18 to 36 months”, Goddard Press