Imagine that you live across the street from an empty lot. One day, you notice that workers have placed piles of building materials, bricks, lumber, and bags of concrete on the property. After some time, the frame of a large, boxlike house takes the place of the piles of materials. From your vantage point, you can see the empty beginnings of where rooms will be. With more time, the internal structure becomes clear. Walls are assembled; doors and stairways connect the parts. Each section of the new house—living, dining, bedroom, and storage areas—has multiple divisions that provide useful space dedicated to some purpose. The disparate piles have been transformed into a coherent structure, and the once simple structure has become increasingly complex. Finishing touches are made, and ongoing renovations will undoubtedly accompany the life of the home.

This image is offered to provide a rough approximation of how the self-concept might develop from early childhood through adolescence and adulthood. It is important to recognize that self-concept or self-knowledge is very much like any other kind of knowledge, for the self is a cognitive construction. Therefore, knowledge of the self will be constrained by the child’s general level of cognitive development and will most likely progress unevenly. As Harter (1999) has pointed out in her description of general cognitive-developmental stages, “decalage is accepted as the rule, rather than the exception; therefore, it is expected that the particular level of development at which one is functioning will vary across different domains of knowledge."

In addition, remember that the self-concept is multidimensional, like a house with various rooms. In many homes, rooms are added on after the initial construction. In contrast to this somewhat static analogy, the self-system is dynamic and changes throughout development. Generally, the child’s self-concept proceeds from a rather undifferentiated state or simple structure to a much more organized and coherent structure in adulthood through a process of stagelike changes. Let us consider some of the developments in self-knowledge that occur as children mature.

The preschool child’s rendering of herself is something like the lot filled with building materials. Self-descriptors such as “big,” “girl,” and “nice” are separate, uncoordinated elements in the child’s self-portrait because she is cognitively unable to integrate these elements into an organized whole. We know from our discussion of cognitive development that young children’s ability to hold in mind several ideas at the same time and to integrate these in some meaningful way is quite underdeveloped. Furthermore, preschool youngsters find accommodating opposing characteristics, such as being “nice” and “mean” (Fischer, Hand, Watson, Van Parys, & Tucker, 1984), or opposing emotional states, such as “happy” and “sad” (Harris, 1983), to be especially difficult. Nor do young children make much use of perspective taking at this age. In failing to do so, they show limited ability to use the behaviors or perspectives of others as guides for evaluating their own conduct or performance. Stated in other words, they do not use information gleaned from observing others as a way of assessing their competencies. Consequently, the young child’s self-evaluations may not conform to reality but may be overly positive. Four-year-old Jamar might insist he has won the round of miniature golf despite hitting the ball outside the lane every time!

Gradually, the early-elementary-school-aged youngster begins to organize the characteristics of the “Me-self” into sets of categories that display some coherence. For example, the child might relate being good at drawing, at coloring, and at cutting as an indication that she is good at art. However, the child still does not accommodate sets of characteristics with opposing features (e.g., nice versus mean; Fischer et al., 1984). Given her tendency to perceive personal qualities as good and to discount the subtlety of coexisting negative attributes, the child’s thinking about herself may still have an all-or-nothing quality that is often unrealistically positive. There is little discrepancy between the “real” and the “ideal” selves. Gradual improvements in perspective-taking ability, however, allow the child to begin to evaluate her own behavior according to others’ standards. The child’s anticipation of another person’s reaction, be it as a reward or a punishment, becomes internalized (Harter, 1998). As others’ rules or standards become internalized, they become adopted as self-regulatory guidelines and form the basis for the looking-glass self.

Between middle childhood and early adolescence, the individual becomes capable of integrating opposing characteristics and begins to form more abstract trait-like concepts to describe herself. Self-assessments, such as “being smart,” are bolstered by feedback from a wide variety of outside influences across many kinds of situations, and these assessments become more resistant to modification. Self-esteem tends to decline a bit during middle childhood and early adolescence because children recognize, often for the first time, how they fall short in comparison to others. Struggles to integrate abstract representations of the self characterize the period of adolescence as the young person works on defining a unique identity.