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Next: The Emergence of Empathy Up: Child Development Previous: Emotional Expression in the

Acquisition of a Sense of Self and Other

How does the child come to understand that another person is feeling happy or sad, angry or afraid? An understanding of the feelings of other people is something that we expect of any normal human being, but the origins of that understanding are not obvious [Harris, 1989].

The emergence of an awareness of a sense of `other' is a necessary precursor to emotional understanding. The ability to mimic appropriate emotional responses emerges well before this fundamental knowledge. However, once the child had both mimicry and a sense of `other', she has arrived at a turning point in her development. Such knowledge enables affective communication between people.

The preschool child has a good understanding of the causes and consequences of basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. The acquisition of mature emotion categories would seem to depend on the ability to conceptualize itself and others as experiencers of particular kinds of internal states [Saarni and Harris, 1989].

Piaget characterizes preschoolers by their egocentrism, an inability to take the perspective of another person. This lack of empathy does not mean they are selfish, rather, they can not think any other way. According to Piaget, the understanding of `self as an object in space' develops after the understanding of other objects, and does not emerge until the middle of the second year [Piaget, 1952].

Other researchers have demonstrated that this sense of `self' emerges even earlier.

To establish themselves as independent individuals, children must mentally separate themselves from their mothers... This initial understanding gradually develops into self-assertion... The baby between 12 and 20 months of age begins to make his own wishes known, even when they clash with his mother's [Fischer, 1984].

Further, Piaget claims that an awareness of `other' develops long after the awareness of self [Piaget, 1952]. Piaget demonstrated this with his famous mountain range experiment [Piaget and Inhelder, 1956]. In it they ask a child to draw a mountain range from the viewpoint of a doll. The child's inability to put themselves in the place of the doll resulted in the conclusion that children can not empathize until approximately the age of seven years. Subsequent experiments, however, (Flavell 1977, Marvin et al. 1976 Whitehurst & Sonnenschein, 1978) demonstrate that by the age of 4 or 5 a child can, in fact, take the point of view of another person.

The significance of the development of a clear distinction of `self' and `other' can be seen from the following passage. ``A small sample of depressed children clearly view depression as a combination of sadness and fear. In approximately half of the descriptions children reported that they were mad at the self, whereas the remaining accounts provided example of anger directed outward toward others'' [Saarni and Harris, 1989]. This is a situation where formalized instruction could have direct benefits for the depressed children. If they knew how to direct their anger, and learned not to confuse sadness with fear, they might be able to learn how to manage their feelings.

Intentionality emerges again as the ruler for the measurement of the development of self and other. What complicates this assessment is the same problem of imitation discussed previously. Children between the ages of 2 and 7 seem to `go through the motions' of recognizing the `other' as an independent entity long before they have internalized the concept. In the Affective Tigger project, the emergence of a recognition of `other' is assessed as emerging during the third year.

next up previous contents
Next: The Emergence of Empathy Up: Child Development Previous: Emotional Expression in the

Dana L Kirsch
Tue May 25 08:59:22 EDT 1999