When a child is born, he or she is instantly met with the challenge of discovering their own identity and role in the world. Immediately, a period of inquiry and experimentation begins – an attempt to discover how the planet works and how to survive upon its surface.  As a child begins to explore this planet, and the life that is just beginning, many questions arise and “experiments” are conducted at a rapid pace.  “What happens if I put my toe in my mouth?”  “What happens if I cry?”  “What happens if I close my eyes? Will my mommy still be there when I open them?”  A child new to life outside of the womb is quickly set on a life-long mission to discover how the world works, and to find his or her position is within it.  As this ultimate mission begins, it is essential that caregivers assist a child in discovering the answers to questions about life.  If a child is discouraged from exploration of self and the world, then the child has the potential to develop into a very confused and self-conscious adult: one that experiences his or her self and the world as “mixed up”.

As children develop, their experimentation and inquiry allow for the development of language, and therefore “research” becomes more advanced.  This is also the time when parents might feel overwhelmed by the questions of a child. “Why is the sky blue?”  “Why don’t I have feet on my hands?”  “Is it possible to build a tower to the moon?”  “Why can’t I fly?”  It can be very challenging for a caregiver to field a constant barrage of questions from a child, but adults need to communicate to children that there is no such thing as a bad question.  It is through the information gained from these questions that allows for a child to develop into a confident adult.  When a child’s questions are discouraged, the child is left in a lonely and confusing position, as he or she becomes stuck without knowing what his or her role is in this thing we call life.

Just as an astronaut might take soil samples or observe the effects of atmospheric pressure on a distant planet, a child struggling with questions of identity and purpose begins conducting experiments on their newly discovered planet Earth.  “I wonder what would happen if I were to put the cat in the toilet?” “Is this wall for drawing, and can I use this pudding and my hands to do so?”  Parents need to have patience with children as they discover their own abilities and explore their new world.  In addition, limits need to be set for a developing child.  A child wants to know what is appropriate and what is not.  These boundaries are what a child is attempting to discover through their experimentation.  Limits can be containing for children who find themselves in a seemingly infinite universe that can seem scary and confusing.  Boundaries can be taught to child in a non-shaming and encouraging way. A child should not be made to feel bad for this exploration, for this shaming will inhibit the natural period of exploration and the development of a secure identity.  For example, a parent who discovers a pudding portrait might say to their child, “Jimmy, I understand that you want to draw, and I know that you draw well, but walls aren’t for drawing…here’s some paper and crayons. I’ll put your pudding in the fridge.”  Empathy, patience and encouragement are essential for a child to experience as they discover themselves and their place in this world.

If a child is not allowed the space to explore, and if a child is not taught boundaries, then he or she is left in a state of confusion.  A child is an explorer.  Just like the explorers of space, exploration allows for the gathering of knowledge, which allows for a better understanding of our place in this universe.  Knowledge breeds confidence, and confidence breeds positive self-esteem and self-actualization.  So encourage children to ask questions and explore.  The pudding portraits and seemingly endless questions may sometimes be difficult to handle, but as a child develops in a supportive environment he or she will learn to channel their knowledge into a stronger sense of self.

PROBLEM: Confusion about identity and one’s own abilities, which creates a challenge of discovering one’s role in the world.
SOLUTION:  Asking questions about the world and attempting new tasks will help develop self-confidence and allow for discoveries of purpose and identity.


Author's Bio: 

Matt Casper, M.A. MFT; Matt is a licensed Psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles, California. He graduated cum laude from Duke University where he studied personality psychology, comparative religion and film. He received his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the California Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology and Psychoanalysis and has worked with a diverse population including individual adults, teens and children as well as with groups and couples. Matt has been involved with the Maple Counseling Center, a non-profit counseling clinic, as well as with the Julia-Ann Singer Therapeutic School where he worked with children who fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and has served as a supervisor for teenagers at TEEN LINE, a hotline and website that provides teen-to-teen outreach for teenagers facing emotional challenges. Matt is also the author of a series of 12 books in the "Emotes!" series which aims to help children identify, express and manage their emotions.