Frank Schofield, superintendent, Logan City School District
In the Disney movie Dumbo, the main character initially believes his ability to fly comes from a magic feather, plucked from the tail of a blackbird. It’s only when Dumbo loses the feather that he recognizes the talent that already existed inside of him and understands that his identity as a flying elephant was not dependent on possessing a magic feather.
For those who are fans of the Marvel movies, this same lesson is illustrated in the movie Thor: Ragnarok. Early in the story Thor’s hammer is destroyed, and Thor believes his identity as the god of thunder is damaged because he no longer has the hammer. It is only after he has a vision of his father, Odin, that he understands that the hammer was simply a tool to control his power, not the source of it. Thor learns that his identity is not tied to the hammer, but rather to the power that already existed inside of him.
A quick bit of trivia: There was a deleted scene from the movie where Bruce Banner clumsily attempts to explain this concept to Thor by referencing the story of Dumbo. The final movie was not damaged by not including this scene.
The experiences of Dumbo and Thor illustrate the impact of having a well-developed sense of self, or a sense of personal identity. Having a strong sense of self means you have a deep understanding of what your personal morals and values are, you know what your likes and dislikes are, and you know what your strengths are. You can look at your actions and behaviors objectively more often than not, and you’re more likely to do what you know is right, even if it goes against the grain. People with a strong sense of self reap the following benefits:
-Healthier friendships and relationships
-Increased ability to live a life that’s in line with one’s values
Because these outcomes are essential to a happy, successful life, it is worth examining how caregivers help children develop their own sense of identity at an early age. There are many resources parents can access to help them learn more about specific strategies they can use at home to help children develop their sense of self. One of these resources, calm4kids.org, includes a number of suggestions. Some of them include:
- Label behavior instead of labeling the child. This is most often an issue when parents provide correction to a child. By labeling the behavior (i.e., “hitting your sister was a bad thing to do” vs. “you’re a bad brother for hitting your sister”), we can address the behavior without sending the message that they are a bad person, which then becomes part of their self-identity.
- Provide children with opportunities for success. Give your child age-appropriate tasks she can complete on her own. Doing so will give her a sense of pride and help build a “can-do” mentality.
- Spend time together. A vital part of having a healthy self-concept is feeling loved and valued. Spend this time doing something fun and enjoyable for both of you and avoid criticisms or lectures during this quality time.
- Support your child’s interests. Learn what your child is interested in and support him in mastering that skill or accomplishing his desired level of achievement. Feeling competent and good at something grows a positive self-concept.
- Set reasonable rules and enforce them with loving kindness. Your rules should be age-appropriate and clear. These help your child to feel safe and learn how to manage herself. However, enforcing them with a heavy hand when your child steps out of bounds can actually erode the self-concept. It’s important to make sure your child knows that mistakes are a part of life and don’t mean she’s a bad person. When giving consequences, keep your child’s dignity in mind.
- Maintain a connected relationship. Being connected keeps the lines of communication open, and this is especially important as your child grows into adolescence. Knowing that she has you to talk to, that you will listen without casting out immediate judgment, and that you take her feelings seriously, will help her to feel supported, safe, and important.
- Acknowledge effort and offer encouragement. Children need to know that first place isn’t the goal, but that personal best is a win, no matter what place that lands them. As she grows, her own self-evaluation will become important to her self-concept, and she needs to learn how to emphasize her strengths and accomplishments, even if there is no trophy.
A healthy sense of self is the foundation for the positive development and the overall well-being of a child. Their success at school, at home, and with other social relationships will be influenced by what parents and caregivers have done to help children develop a positive sense of self. Just as happened with Dumbo and Thor, when children have a healthy sense of self, they see themselves as being loved, loving, and valuable, and they are better prepared to address whatever challenges or opportunities come their way.