The Birth and Re-birth of Identity
Every spring is the only spring – a perpetual astonishment.
– Ellis Peters
The birds chirp outside of my window building nests and resting on the newly budded branches surrounding my office. As spring reveals new growth, we watch our children grow and develop, their transformations at times readily apparent and rapid. At a family gathering last weekend, we reconnected with people we haven’t seen in a few months and they noted all of the physical changes of our son. “He’s getting so big!” And there are internal changes occurring as well. How he perceives the world, his awareness and understanding of people and the environment is substantially different in his young life from year to year. Children are constantly forming their sense of identity but they also go through particular developmental periods in which they are experimenting and particularly sensitive to descriptors of themselves and how the world perceives them. They are attempting to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in the world?”.
We, as parents, are also evolving our own sense of identity. I didn’t understand before I took my wedding vows what could possibly be so challenging about marriage, though there seemed to be a consensus that it was difficult for everyone. I recall being told, “You change who you are over and over and the person you are with changes too.” I now deeply understand this reality. We continue to learn and develop as individuals and our own identity changes over time.
Mark Nepo, a poet and philosopher, compares this birth or re-birth of identity to a baby chick being born. It’s a harrowing experience for the chick in the egg who may perceive that she is going to die. The nourishment of the egg goes away as she outgrows it’s use. She begins to eat her shell in need of food. She emerges from darkness into a whole new reality.
Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with a feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end, because it is. Yet the chick offers us the wisdom that the way to be born while still alive is to eat our own shell.1
This reflection is a metaphor for understanding how our past identity is always a part of who we are as we embrace new versions of who we are becoming. As parents, we look for ways to support our children in understanding who they are and who they can become. How do we know when our children are working on a developmental milestone and how can we be supportive?
The author of Yardsticks,2 Chip Wood, synthesizes child development theories for educators according to predictable patterns. He writes that there are four key principles to understanding child development. They are
- Development follows predictable patterns (whether its cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic or physical).
- Children typically pass through those stages in the same order.
- However, children do not pass through those stages at the same rate. It is normal for children to vary as far as how long they remain in a particular stage.
- Growth is uneven and unpredictable.2
As we work to understand how we can support our children’s emerging sense of self, we can become more sensitive to our own developmental path. For example, my external changes in career moving from a focus on schools and education to a focus on parents required inner work and a reforming of my identity. Because I want to integrate my focus on becoming the best parent I can be and my work to support others, I have been undergoing my own transformational path examining old perceptions, patterns from my own childhood, beliefs about myself and my purpose and how that relates to my relationship with my family. Like the common metaphor of a caterpillar in the chrysalis who must turn to “goo” before emerging as a butterfly, my own conceptions of who I am becoming are, at times, uncertain. I use this experience to become more empathetic as I watch my son go through his own set of challenges.
The following are some ideas for supporting the birth and rebirth of identity in family life. They can apply to all family members.
Heighten your awareness when development has sped up and changes are taking place. Development is messy. It comes in fits and starts and is not perfectly linear. The duration of a developmental change is unpredictable. During the time of “goo” as a person is letting go of the old and beginning to formulate the new, individuals are likely more emotional and may act out of character trying on new aspects of who they are becoming. Don’t be quick to judge.
1. Understand regression is likely. In other words, you may see behaviors arise that are
from a previous stage. Tantrums? There is no going backward with development but
realize that who a child was is always a part of who they are becoming. They may revert
to old behaviors for comfort in the sometimes difficult but necessary act of letting go
of the past.
2. Acknowledge that this is a period of trial and error. Children and adults for that matter
may try on new identities for size and see how they fit. They can be particularly sensitive to any feedback you give during this time period. If you do give feedback, positive or
negative, focus on the behavior. Help your child understand that there is always a
chance to make a next positive decision.
3. Recognize that it is a highly emotional time. Erik Erikson, an important developmental
theorist wrote that during a developmental change, there is “a crucial period of increased
vulnerability and heightened potential.”3 Be aware that individuals who are going
through developmental changes can be highly emotional because of the inner journey that is taking place. They may feel that there is a death they are coping with without the
external supports, recognition or rituals. There can be fear of the unknown person they are becoming. Your awareness of heightened emotions can help you be more supportive and calm during the process.
4. Learn more about development. Read about the developmental milestones of a
typical seven year old for example. Check out Yardsticks for easy to read and use lists
of development milestones for ages 4-14. If you or your spouse are undergoing
significant shifts in your thinking, learn about adult development. Check out The Adult
Years by Frederick Hudson for more.4
Actions speak louder. Children, particularly under the age of 12, learn through “identification,” as Erikson terms it.5 They are constantly looking to identify with the adults around them by adopting their traits and behaviors. Yet another important developmental theorist, Lev Vygotsky, wrote that our understanding of our selves and our emotions begins in other people and is then internalized by the child.6 All of this points to children’s natural ability to learn through modeling.
In Raising a Moral Child,7 the author cites a study with 140 elementary and middle school students in which children were given tokens for winning a game that they could keep or donate to children in poverty. When the teacher told them to give but did not do it himself, children were more likely to keep the token. When the teacher spoke and donated his own money, children gave initially but over time there was no impact on future decisions. However when the teacher did not talk about giving but simply gave all of his own money, the children not only gave but the experience influenced future choices about giving as well.8 What kinds of behaviors would you be proud to witness in your child? How can you model those behaviors?
Express your disappointment and confidence. When children misbehave, express your disappointment AND your confidence in their ability to make things better. “I am disappointed that you took Michael’s toy away from him. I know you are a kind person and want to make things better. How do you think you might make things better? What about going back and offering him a toy or apologizing to him?”
Confident parents and confident kids are ever evolving. In fact, confidence comes from the knowledge that we are always learning and developing to become more of who we are. If we understand and value the learning process, it can allow us greater patience with ourselves and our children.
1 Nepo, Mark (2000). The Book of Awakening; Having the Life You Want to Have by Being Present to the Life You Have. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.
Grant, Adam (2014). Raising a Moral Child. The New York Times. Apr. 11.
2 Wood, Chip (2007). Yardsticks; Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 (3rd. Edition). Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
3 Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
4 Hudson, Frederick M. (1999). The Adult Years; Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal (Revised Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
5 Sokol, Justin T. (2009). “Identity Development Throughout the Lifetime: An Examination of Ericksonian Theory,” Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology: Vol. 1: Iss. 2, Article 14.
6 Vygotsky, Lev S. (28 August, 1986). Thought and Language, Revised Edition.
7 Grant, Adam. (2014). Raising a Moral Child. The New York Times. Apr. 11.
8 Rushton, J. Philippe (Mar 1975). Generosity in Children: Immediate and Long-Term Effects of Modeling, Preaching, and Moral Judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 31(3), 459-466.