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The Development of a “Self” in Children: My Reflections

I wrote this in my journal this past spring about 2 months after my son left the public school system to attend a 4 day per week outdoor Wilderness/Montessori homeschool program. Prior to leaving school, I felt a sense of panic every time he began talking with his friends about video games because increasingly, it was all he talked about, in spite of my limiting his game time a lot.

I remember one day in particular when he was meeting a new group of kids, and he instantly gravitated towards the one other child who played a lot of video games. As we drove home, I listened to him chatter about the video games and I realized that he was talking about gaming constantly because he felt competent and confident there, and so it was his way of connecting with other kids. So, even though I was giving him opportunities to meet other kids, the fact that gaming was his main topic of conversation inevitably led to his connecting with other gamers. I felt the knots churning in my stomach and my anxiety rising as this new realization morphed into a feeling of hopelessness.

He has never been very interested in team sports, and there weren’t any kids at his new school playing imaginary games or games that he liked such as capture the flag. Thus, he was gradually letting his friendships with kids who were doing healthy outdoor activities slip away, and gravitating towards kids who played a lot of video games. Since starting middle school he was increasingly disengaged from school, and he had also stopped doing a lot of the creative and imaginative activities he used to do, even at home. No matter what activities I offered or suggested, there didn’t seem to be anything he was genuinely interested in, including his school work, and it was causing tremendous conflict.

The following is my journal reflection after 2 months a new program that was aligned with who he is, capturing both his interest and his heart, and bringing the joy back into his eyes.


One of the things I have noticed since my son started wilderness school is how much his educational experiences affect his identity—his sense of who he is. I noticed because of the stark contrast of how he presented himself previously and how he presents himself now.

He is 12, and I watch all boys his age say things to others about what they do and who they are—with the intention of creating an impression. For example:

  • “I saw the latest Stars Wars movie last night, and it was so cool!”
  • “Yesterday at school, we chopped down some trees with an axe. We’re building a shelter to sleep in.”
  • “I got up to level 7 yesterday in (name a video game).”

In part, these statements give information and are intended to share experiences and connect with friends. However, they are also often intended to shape others impression of them, and this is part of the process of growth and development we all go through to discover who we are, often throughout our lifetime. We ‘try on’ different personas and behaviours to see how they feel, and how they work for us in our relationships with others.

What I noticed is this:  As a 12 year old boy who frequently seeks out challenge and adventure, when my son was in the public education system where he wasn’t very interested or engaged he began to increasingly look for those challenges in activities that weren’t necessarily very healthy, for instance, video gaming. In turn, that tendency began to shape who he was drawn to be friends with, because in his ‘talk’ about who he was and what he liked to do, video gaming increasingly became the “activity” he talked about—a lot, because he was gaining competency there and so he felt good about it. It was his ‘thing’ and he saw himself as a video gamer. It was becoming his ‘identity’ and that’s what was scaring me.

The more he disengaged in other activities, the stronger this tendency became, and he became less willing to even try other activities because the place where he felt confident and accomplished was in video games. If I asked him about trying soccer, the answer was no, and the same with any other sport or even creative activities such as art or music. And the older he got, the more proficient his schoolmates got at these other activities making him even more reluctant to join in because of the gap between his ability and theirs. “I suck at it” he’d say.

This has shifted dramatically since he started his Wilderness/Montessori school.

Now that he loves ‘school’, he talks a lot more about what he is doing there both to his friends and to his Dad and I.

I believe this is because he loves what he’s doing there, and it’s increasingly shaping how he seems himself—the ‘self’ who he believes he is and is presenting to the world with confidence. Whereas before, in the absence of significant life activities that he loved, video gaming formed the content for much of his talk about ‘who I am’, now there are all of these other competencies that are shaping his experience and talk about who he is.

For example, the other day I heard him telling his friend about how he and some other students had chopped down trees to use in building their shelter. On another day at the park, I overheard him asking his friend, “Do you know what kind of tree this is?” as he pointed to a large cedar. Part of his new identity that is forming is that of a person knowledgeable about nature and having the skills to survive and thrive.

In short, the activities in which he is engaged and feels really good about his accomplishments largely shape his identity, his self-esteem and his sense of confidence and self-worth. When school was not of interest to him, he found other things to engage in, talk about, and create a sense of who he was as accomplished and competent—as a video game player. Now that he is in a program he loves—he is talking about, writing about, and increasingly seeing himself as this person who has a whole collection of other competencies and interests. His interest in video gaming accomplishments is still present, but has been relegated to the sidelines.

He still talks with his friends about gaming, but it is one of many things he talks about, and it’s no longer the predominant activity in which he feels confident and competent. He talks a lot about things like building shelters, wild plants that he discovered last week are edible, and he’s excited about what he’s learning and who he is becoming.

What I’ve realized from all of this, is that it’s vitally important that our children have the opportunity to engage daily, for the predominance of their time, in activities that they love and feel drawn to. It has the potential to shape their “self” identity more than I had ever imagined.


Questions for Reflection

  1. What are the things my child sees in himself or herself at the point in time that are shaping his/her current sense of identity?
    1. Just notice, without judgement. We all ‘try on’ different personas and identities as we explore and discover who we are, and they change and evolve over time.
  2. If your child identifies him/herself in a way that you feel might be unhealthy for him (e.g., like I did with my son’s video gaming):
    1. What do you imagine your child might be looking for in that activity? A sense of competence? Adventure? Belonging?
    2. Are there other activities that might appeal to your child based on what they are trying to accomplish, and based on what they enjoy doing?

If you have any questions or stories to share, I’d love to hear from you below, as always!



Soul Sessions

I’m honoured and delighted to be speaking, alongside of two other inspiring women–Rebecca Craigie and Deborah Pike, at the next YoUnlimited Soul Sessions in Victoria BC on October 19th, 2016.  While this is not specifically a parenting event, I will be sharing stories about how my own personal journey of healing has been a key factor in helping me connect with my son, and heal other family relationships. If this is something that might appeal to you, come out and be inspired! For details about each speaker and her topic, click here.