How Do Children Make Sense of Life’s Experiences

Have you wondered how you understood what happened in your life as a child, or you grew up to find out that your understanding of most things were not exactly the actual meaning or happenings.

We are taught that every child is born a clean slate; how a child reacts or behaves is as a result of so many factors.

In this article, we will try to explore how children make sense of life’s experiences, what factors contribute to this and if there are suggestions to help them make better meaning of life happenings.

Finding Self

Since the dawn of antiquity, philosophers have been intrigued with how human beings develop self-awareness; the ability to examine and understand who we are and how it relate o the world around us.

It takes children to first tune in to their own feelings, thoughts, actions and be able to recognize how other people see them, this is called self awareness. It start from age 1-3 years. From the moment they are born, babies are exposed to information that can teach them about who they are. By touching their own face and body, kicking and grabbing things, they start to enjoy the influence of their actions on the world. But it is not until children approach their second birthday that they start to develop a sense of self and are able to reflect on themselves from the perspective of somebody else.

One indication of this new objective self-awareness is that children start recognizing themselves in a mirror or photograph. A child begins to know her name and refer to things by their names, it continues to the child recognizing and naming her emotions, strength, , challenges, likes and dislikes.

This kind of self-awareness can be assessed by putting a small mark on a child’s forehead, such as kiss them while wearing lipstick. The child can’t feel the mark so their sense of touch can’t alert them to it, but they can see it if they look in a mirror. If the child has the capacity to see themselves as another person would, they will reach up to touch the mark when shown a mirror, indicating that they equate the mirror image with their own body.

Children who are self-aware, do a better job at self-monitoring; they are able to keep track of things happening around them, figure out what works and what doesn’t work.

Self awareness builds self-esteem, self advocate, self monitoring, self reflection and all these, help children make sense of happenings around them.  Parents may notice that by age three, their child is motivated to make amends for wrong doing, can be proud of their own behavior or hide when unhappy about something they have done.

Memory and Learning
Regardless of how children feel about themselves, adding an “idea of me” to their cognitive architecture changes the way they process information. For example, as adults, we remember very few childhood events. One intuitive explanation for this “childhood amnesia” is that until memories can be related to our sense of self, they are very difficult to store and retrieve.

Once a child’s sense of self is established, they are more likely to remember information that is related to themselves. This is known as the “self-reference effect” on memory and emerges early on. From at least three-years-old children are more likely to remember objects linked with themselves than those linked with another person.

For example, children between four and six-years-old were asked to sort pictures of shopping items into their own basket, and a shopping basket owned by another person. After the items were sorted, the children were shown a wider selection of shopping items and asked which ones they recognized from the previous game. Children accurately remembered more of the items that they “owned”, than items that had been sorted into the other person’s basket.

It’s imperative to note that these factors have greater impacts on how children make sense of life experiences; 

  1. Self awareness/concept
  2. Parents
  3. Influences on monitoring and concept 

In summary, selfhood starts at birth, but children don’t start expressing an self awareness until toddlerhood. Children then start to gather information about themselves and store autobiographical material, starting a life narrative that guides their responses to the world.

Philosophers believe that parents can also shape children’s self awareness; when they provide positive response to an infant’s actions, it provides them with their first experience of having a positive impact on the world.

Amanda Morin 
worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.
Bob Cunningham, EdM 
serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.
The conversation
Academic rigour, journalistic flair, October 17, 2016 12.23pm SAS


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