Investigating the Possibility of a Developmental Trend in the Way That Children Describe Themselves.

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Investigating the possibility of a developmental trend in the way that children describe themselves.


This version of Rosenberg’s research into children’s self-descriptions analysed data from semi-structured interviews with two children; Annie (8) and Kirsty (16). The data was interpreted to ascertain whether, as in Rosenberg’s research, children’s self-descriptions show evidence of a developmental progression and whether locus of self-knowledge shifts from other to self as children get older. Substantial support was found for Rosenberg’s theory that children’s self-descriptions become more complex with age and demonstrate a developmental trend. Some support was found for the idea that the locus of self-knowledge shifts from other to self with age but some of the children’s responses ran counter to expectation.


A child’s sense of identity begins to form at a young age and develops throughout childhood. Eleanor Macoby (1980) pointed out that a sense of self emerges gradually as a child develops more complex understandings.

Research shows that children differ in the way that they describe themselves at different ages. Bannister and Agnew (1977) and Harter (1983) found that as children get older they use more complex descriptions and include more references to emotions and attitudes. Younger children rely more on physical attributes, activities and preferences. Bannister and Agnew (1977) proposed that as children get older they become better able to ‘distinguish themselves psychologically’ from others (The Open University, 2009, p.20). Harter (1983) proposed that the way children describe themselves follows a developmental sequence which reflects the notion that identity develops in increments throughout childhood.

Rosenberg (1979) focused part of his research into the self-concept on investigating this idea of a developmental trend in children’s sense of identity. He interviewed a sample of 8-18 year olds and created categories in which to sort the children’s responses. In keeping with the findings of Bannister and Agnew and Harter, Rosenberg found that younger children used mostly physical descriptions of themselves while older children relied more on character traits. As a result he concluded that ‘the self becomes less and less a perceptual object and more and more a conceptual trait system’ (Murphy (1947), as cited in The Open University, 2009, p.21). He found that, as children get older, they focus more on interpersonal traits and refer more frequently to relationships and inner qualities.

Rosenberg also investigated what he called the ‘locus of self-knowledge’ – the extent to which children develop an ‘independent, self-reflective sense of self’ (The Open University, 2009, p.22). This was measured by asking children who knew them best, themselves or someone else. He found that younger children were more likely to claim that another, usually a parent, knew them better. Older children were more self-reliant when it came to judging themselves. Therefore, Rosenberg concluded that the locus of self-knowledge shifts with age from another to the self. Increased self-knowledge would result in more psychological self-descriptions so this relates to the idea of developmental progression being demonstrated in children’s self-descriptions.

This study is based on Rosenberg’s research and is an analysis and interpretation of interview data. Children’s responses are allocated to Rosenberg’s categories in order to answer the research question: Do children’s self-descriptions show evidence of a developmental trend? This study will focus on answers to the ‘Who Am I?’ statements but will also pay attention to further interview responses to understand differences in the way children of different ages self-evaluate, view themselves and others and conceptualise an ideal self. This study also examines the concept of a locus of self-knowledge and asks: Does a...
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